Now’s The Time to Prepare for Extreme Drought

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By Scott Dunbar, Stewardship Program Manager

January 23, 2023

This op-ed first appeared in the Marin Independent Journal.

These past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time on ranches and farms across Marin County. Without a doubt, water is on everyone’s mind, but not exactly in the way most of us might be thinking.

With the recent extreme storm events, our community has been inundated with flooding, persistent power outages and even loss of life. As the Marin Agricultural Land Trust’s stewardship program manager for sustainable agriculture, I can say that, while ranchers and farmers are also concerned about these same impacts, they are also always thinking about the other side of the water equation. They are focused on the long-term drought outlook and the need to build resilience for future climate variability.

Farmers and ranchers are on the front line; experiencing extreme, dynamic weather from historic drought to atmospheric river storms. Now is the time to double down on investments in long-term solutions and lay the foundation for building resilience for climate variability.

Extreme Drought - MALT

Kenny Wilson, at the recently MALT-protected McDowell Ranch, examines a cement water trough for leaks amid the most intense and prolonged drought in recorded history.

Before these rains, most Northern California cities had only received half to two-thirds of their historical average rainfall during this ongoing three-year drought: the equivalent of losing an entire year of rainfall. This profound lack of water has undoubtedly impacted agricultural producers in Marin.

In fact, in the most recent county crop report, the total gross value of agricultural crops and commodities produced dropped by 5% (from $101.8 to $96.6 million) with the primary attribute being reduced yield due to a lack of water. As ponds and wells ran dry, many farmers and ranchers resorted to hauling water for their operations, a particularly expensive endeavor this past year as fuel prices soared. Combined with supply-chain shortages, the rising cost of hay and labor shortages, it was an incredibly difficult time to be producing food and fiber here in Marin County.

In April of 2021, MALT launched an emergency Drought Resilience and Water Security (DRAWS) initiative to help all Marin County ranchers and farmers invest in drought-resilient conservation practices. Some examples of the types of projects supported through DRAWS include adding storage tanks, adding infrastructure to better distribute water across a ranch and developing rain catchment systems.

Extreme Drought - Sunset over Marin County ranchland - MALT

From 2019 – 2022, most Northern California cities received only half to two thirds of their historical average rainfall, which is the equivalent of losing an entire year of rainfall. Climate change is making drought more frequent, severe and pervasive.

We’ve been seeing the impact of the DRAWS initiative across the county as landowners and tenants are in a better position than they would have been without the support of the initiative.

A dairy in Tomales recently completed a rain catchment system and now has a full pond for the first time in six years. A new barn and catchment system supported in partnership by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and MALT was completed over the summer. It includes gutters, storage tanks and a new pump to be able to distribute tens of thousands of gallons of rainfall to the main pond. As a result, this pond once again provides myriad wildlife benefits while helping build resilience against drought.

While there are short-term solutions to manage water shortages, the DRAWS initiative is designed to push forward the future of Marin agriculture through long-term resiliency such as solar-power pumps for water distribution and rain catchment systems. We believe increasing water security requires a multi-faceted, empathetic approach that doesn’t devalue nor laud individuals based on their agricultural system nor ability to spend valuable hours applying for and managing projects. MALT believes in a vision of prospering agriculture, ecological health, thriving community and climate resilience.

So yes, after these extreme storm events, ponds are full, springs are gushing and aquifers are being recharged. But now is not the time to lean on short-term solutions, nor rest on our laurels with drought preparation.

We are at a critical moment in time to support agriculturalists and the community right here in our beautiful Marin backyard. With increasing climatic variability, let’s use this time of abundance to prepare for the times of scarcity with long-term water solutions and support.

We’ll all be thankful we did during the next drought.

About the Author:

Scott Dunbar is the stewardship program manager for the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) and oversees its Drought Resilience and Water Security (DRAWS) initiative and Stewardship Assistance Program (SAP). Having spent much of his career in the agricultural community, he is committed to building resilience within this essential part of our local economy.

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