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California’s historic drought strains towns and farms in Sonoma County

February 14, 2014 at 6:26 PM EDT
California is in bad shape water-wise. Despite some relief in early February, the rainy season is half over and reservoirs are still far below capacity, putting the state's agricultural production in jeopardy. Special correspondent Spencer Michels visits Sonoma County, a region known for its dairies, winemaking and breweries, to learn how communities are preparing for their worst-case scenarios.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While much of the nation, as we have been reporting, is struggling with a wet and freezing winter, the Southwest is experiencing record heat. And, for weeks, California has been suffering from a serious drought.

As you can see on this map, more than 90 percent of the state is experiencing a severe to exceptional shortage of water. The areas shaded in red and maroon are the most extremely parched areas of the state.

President Obama is visiting California today, where he’s meeting with farmers in the Central Valley as part of his trip. He’s directing more than $160 million in federal aid, much of it going to provide relief for those farmers and ranchers with livestock losses.

Special correspondent Spencer Michels has been spending time with farmers and others who are feeling the effects.

Here’s his report.

SPENCER MICHELS: Dairyman Don DeBernardi has had a rough winter. The 700 cows he milks at his organic dairy in Sonoma County, Calif., are eating costly hay, not the lush green grass they usually munch on this time of year.

The 14-month drought has kept it brown until just now. That could put his organic certification in jeopardy. He’s had to truck water in to clean his milking barn. His springs are dry.

DON DEBERNARDI, California Dairy Owner: As far as pasture, were not going to have any feed for at least two months.

SPENCER MICHELS: And what’s the result of that?

DON DEBERNARDI: Well, we have to truck hay in, where there’s not much hay left in the state.

SPENCER MICHELS: So what are you going to do?

DON DEBERNARDI: We come out of state. We have to try and get hay somewhere.

SPENCER MICHELS: Each of his cows drinks 35 to 40 gallons of water a day. Like a lot of dairymen, he’s considering selling some of them for beef, since it’s too expensive to feed them.

DON DEBERNARDI: Well, we have to wait and see if the pasture comes, or how the hay supply holds out. We probably will sell some. You can’t afford to feed an animal all year and buy hay to feed it.

SPENCER MICHELS: The problem, says DeBernardi, is too many people and not enough stored water.

DON DEBERNARDI: More people come into California, they build more homes, but they do not build any infrastructures for dam — for water supply.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fifty miles north of the cattle ranch, in the wine country of Sonoma County, grape growers, whose vines are dormant right now, had been told by water officials in meetings like this one that the drought could be of biblical proportions.

They use water in the winter to protect the grapes from frost and in the summer to irrigate them. Without enough, the crop gets smaller and the vines are vulnerable to freezing. The early February storms in Northern California got everyone excited, until they realized that what seemed like a monumental storm was really just a drop in the bucket.

Water officials say the state would need six or seven more such storms to end this drought, and that is very unlikely. With the so-called rainy season half over, the state remains in bad shape. Reservoirs are far below capacity, and rivers are trickling like it was the summer. The state’s huge agricultural production is in jeopardy in the Central Valley, as groundwater is becoming scarce.

In the mountains, where melting snow provides much of water for the rest of the state, the snowpack increased this month from 10 percent of normal to 22 percent, but that’s far too low. Last month, Gov. Jerry Brown officially declared a drought emergency and called on all citizens to cut back at least 20 percent of their water use, though conservation efforts would be voluntary.

In Cloverdale, a quiet agricultural town in Sonoma County, 90 miles north of San Francisco, its 8,500 residents were told by the state that they, along with 16 other communities, could run out of water within two to four months.

While Public Works Director Craig Scott doesn’t believe the situation is that bad, he says the town’s plight is serious.

CRAIG SCOTT, Director, Cloverdale Public Works: We just have had the driest year on record in 2013. And this storm that we just had in the last few days has been the first significant storm in over 14 months. I think, with tree ring analysis, its the driest year in 400 years.

SPENCER MICHELS: Cloverdale gets its water from wells along the banks of the Russian River, which feeds an underground aquifer. The river’s flow now is comparable to what it usually is in the dry summer, so there’s concern the wells’ production could decline. The town has no dam to store its water and depends on a few tanks.

CRAIG SCOTT: This water is heading out into the Pacific Ocean. We have no way to store it right now in sufficient quantities to get us past these really giant drought events. We have storage in the system, four days’ worth of storage. A reservoir of the magnitude to actually get us from season to season would be a huge expense.

SPENCER MICHELS: So Cloverdale isn’t thinking big. Its mayor, Carol Russell, and the city council, are taking smaller steps, declaring what they call a mandatory cutback of 25 percent in water usage, including a ban on lawn watering.

MAYOR CAROL RUSSELL, Cloverdale, Calif.: Irrigation in a drought really is a privilege. It’s not a right, unfortunately, for any of us. This luscious landscaping is designed to save water, and have a garden that is essentially made up of things that don’t require a whole lot of water to survive.

SPENCER MICHELS: If the guidelines don’t work and the drought continues, the city council is considering tougher measures, including higher rates and fines, called stage three.

MAYOR CAROL RUSSELL: And a stage three isn’t, hey, hey, do your best because 25 percent is mandatory. Now it goes up to 50 percent, and you end up with an allotment of water per person per household.

SPENCER MICHELS: One of Cloverdale’s most thriving businesses depends on a lot of water. Bear Republic Brewing Company, a regional brewery that makes Racer 5 IPA, is trying to conserve water. For every gallon of beer, they use 3.5 gallons of water, much lower than the industry standard.

Co-founder and brewmaster Richard Norgrove says he isn’t sure if Cloverdale’s wells will provide the brewery with enough water this year.

RICHARD NORGROVE, Bear Republic Brewing Co.: We may have to truck it in. We could move our production out of state. We could move our business to a community that’s not affected by water use problems. But those aren’t really part of what the family plan is. We’re local and want to stay here.

SPENCER MICHELS: Instead, to insure an adequate water supply, Bear Republic has entered into a private-public partnership with Cloverdale to bring more wells into production.

RICHARD NORGROVE: We have lent them close to a half-a-million dollars to accelerate their well drilling, which is really helping the infrastructure for the community. If we don’t manage our watershed, we may not even be able to grow this business, because there’s not going to be enough water for everybody.

SPENCER MICHELS: And the town is equally enthusiastic with the arrangement.

MAYOR CAROL RUSSELL: They came to the city and said, look, can we expand? And we said, yes, we’d love you to, but there’s a water problem. We’re in the middle of a drought. We got together with them, and what they’re helping us do is develop wells for everyone.

SPENCER MICHELS: Meanwhile, many Californians are resorting to less exotic time-tested ways of saving water: bricks in the toilet tank, low flow toilets, short showers and less lawn watering, all means of coping with a drought that hydrologists are predicting will continue throughout this year, and perhaps even beyond.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As residents in California cope with the problems Spencer just chronicled, the president is proposing the creation of a new $1 billion fund to help communities deal with the impact of climate change. That money would need to be approved by Congress, but it will likely face significant opposition among Republicans in the House.