Paul Van Leer doesn’t even have to look outside to see how dry the Central Coast is this year. He can just look to see how much he’s spending on hay to feed his cattle.
“As far as cows go, we’re pretty much out of dry feed from the previous year, so we have to supplement with hay,” said Van Leer, a South Coast farmer and rancher and past president of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau. “A lot of people will have to sell their herd or at least part of it.”
Without a “normal” rainfall since 2010, the grass that normally feeds Central Coast cattle is gone, and with no appreciable rainfall in the forecast, things are looking pretty bleak.
Van Leer compared the situation here to the drought in Texas, which has also seen three years of pitiful rainfall totals.
Unless the Central Coast gets a rain of Biblical proportions over the next few months, the 2013-14 year will be one of the driest on record.
“It’s not good,” said Santa Barbara County hydrologist Alex Doran. “Countywide we’re at 22 percent of normal. For Santa Maria, we’re at 17 percent of normal.”
Only Cuyama has a lower percentage of rainfall for the year with 14 percent. Buellton is at 18 percent, Lompoc and Los Alamos are both at 21 percent, while the Santa Ynez Valley fire station checks in with 31 percent of its normal annual rainfall.
Countywide, yearly rainfall averages range from around 8 inches in the arid Cuyama Valley to a little over 36 inches atop the Santa Ynez Mountain range.
Since Sept. 1, when the water year begins, Santa Maria has had just .73 inches of rain. If those trends continue, the city, county and region will have the driest year on record.
The 2006-07 year is the current benchmark for parched conditions. That year, Lompoc was one of the driest places in the county with just 5.31 inches of rain. Santa Maria wasn’t much better with 5.6 inches, while 6.30 inches were measured in Buellton, the lowest total of the station’s 59-year history.
That year, Santa Maria had 2.08 inches by New Year’s Day.
Other infamously dry years on the Central Coast were 1971-72 and the two-year period from 1988 to 1990 where Santa Maria and Lompoc collected just 12.12 and 13.09 inches, respectively.
The least rainfall in county history fell in 1877 when a meager 4.49 inches fell in downtown Santa Barbara, and the area’s most sustained drought lasted from 1986 to 1991 when county reservoirs nearly dried up.
Doran said if the current conditions continue, this year could set a new high for low rainfall totals.
“If the next month and a half doesn’t produce we will not be looking too good,” he said.
Santa Maria will have to get nearly 5 inches of rain between now and Aug. 31 to keep 2014 from being the driest year in the 107 years records have been kept. The city would have to get over 13 inches just to get to the mean annual total of 13.77 inches.
Things don’t look much better around the state.
San Francisco, which normally gets just over 20 inches of rain annually, has a piddling 3.3 in the bucket so far — 16 percent of normal. Los Angeles has 3.6 inches of its nearly 15-inch norm. Even Fresno, which averages 11.5 inches per year, has just a drip over 3 inches.
The Central Coast tends to get most of its rain in January and February, according to monthly records. There have also been a few March miracle rainfalls over the past century.
“It is possible to have a single rainfall event bring us back up to normal rainfall totals. With the lack of rainfall we have had so far, we can only hope to receive the much needed rainfall during the next couple of months,” Doran noted.
If that did happen, Santa Ynez Valley rancher Fred Chamberlin said it wouldn’t take long for the grass to come back.
“If we got 3 to 4 inches, the grass could come back very fast,” said Chamberlin, a board member with the Farm Bureau and currently the second vice president of the state Cattlemen’s Association. “If something doesn’t happen within a week or so, we’ll have to get rid of our cattle. We’re going to try to keep the herd, but that’s going to take a lot of hay.”
And hay is hard to come by right now because it’s so dry everywhere, Chamberlin added.
U.S. Drought Monitor reports show that while much of California has been dry so far this year, the Central Coast is taking those conditions to the extreme.
The coast from the Santa Barbara-Ventura county line up to mid-Monterey County, along with San Joaquin Valley counties from Kern to El Dorado, are in extreme drought conditions.
Conditions have gotten so bad that the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors recently approved an emergency ordinance to ban new agricultural pumping in the Paso Robles groundwater basin for two years. The Turlock City Council in October drafted a letter to the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors requesting a similar ban.
The current drought has depleted county reservoirs which are all less that half full. Cachuma, the county’s largest reservoir, is a little over 40 percent full.
San Luis Obispo County is in a little bit better shape.
Lopez Lake, which supplies much of the South County is at 60 percent of capacity, the Salinas Reservoir near Santa Margarita is slightly below 40 percent full, and Lake Nacimiento is at 23 percent capacity with 86,000 acre feet. San Luis Obispo County has a 25,000-acre-feet reserve in Lake Nacimiento which is on the tail end of its capacity, according to Dean Benedix, utilities division manager of San Luis Obispo County Public Works.
That means the county is in pretty good shape, water-wise.
“Lopez and Santa Margarita are actually in pretty good shape,” he said, adding those two sources supply most of the water locally. “Even with minimal rainfall it looks like we’ll be fine this year. We’re in fairly good shape considering we haven’t had much rain.”
Accuweather.com doesn’t see much rain coming in its extended forecast. Its monthly calendar shows daytime high temperatures ranging from 59 to 76 throughout the rest of the month with nothing but sunshine.
February doesn’t look much better with the first 15 days featuring little more than one “mostly cloudy day” and most filled with “abundant sunshine.”
Van Leer, who also grows avocados and citrus, said the lack of soaking rain is also hurting crops. Without them, the alkaline properties of the water used to irrigate crops and the ground water are damaging roots.
He said the lack of rain will eventually be felt by everyone who visits a grocery store in the form of higher food costs.
“There’s some talk of a catch-up month,” he said, referring to predictions of enough rain to naturally irrigate crops and grow some late season grass. “There’s not a lot of stock taken in those, though. Those are mostly hopes and prayers. It’s not a good situation. Mother Nature is in control and we just go with it.”