Of cattle and carrots

Drought could damage ranchers for years

The rich and fertile irrigated meadows and croplands that surround the small towns of Mono County are more than a pretty foreground to the towering Sierra—they provide the second greatest economic engine the region has, second only to tourism.

Cattle, sheep, garlic, onions, carrots, alfalfa, even wine grapes—yes, grapes—grow here, to the tune of about $77 million dollars.

It’s more than that, however.

“It’s a way of life that has been part of the Eastern Sierra for more than a century,” said George Milovich, Mono and Inyo counties agricultural commissioner. “It’s a big part of our history, and some of the families in agriculture are our oldest families.”

In Mono County, the biggest agricultural money-maker is cattle, he said Tuesday—the operations that surround Bridgeport, Crowley Lake, McGee Creek, and the Antelope Valley area outside of Walker and Coleville.

The extreme temperatures here, even the cold, can be a bonus, particularly to one crop; the alfalfa grown in Mono County is prized by ranchers from all across the state and beyond, due to its high protein content.

Now, however, the century-plus-old industry may be facing one of its worst challenges ever—a drought that, as of this month, bypassed the dreadful drought of 1977 to become the worst drought year on record.

To make matters worse, it’s the second drought year in a row, and if the agricultural industry could recover last year—which it did—it was mostly because the winter before that was one of the wettest on record, Milovich said, giving pastures and watersheds something of a buffer.

But that buffer disappeared during the dry, warm winter of 2012-13, and ranchers and farmers are facing some hard, cold facts.

As of May 2, according to the state Department of Water Resources, the Sierra snowpack overall is at about 17 percent of normal. The State Water Project deliveries this summer will be only 35 percent of requested amounts, according to the department, with some regions in the state delivering only 20 percent or less of what is requested.

Mono County is in somewhat better shape than the state average, with a snowpack that came in at about 79 percent of normal on April 1, but Inyo County is another story, Milovich said.

“I’m really concerned about next year,” he said. “We will make it through this summer, but in the fall, the ranchers are going to have to decrease their herds by several hundred head, average. And that’s just the beginning. It takes years, once you’ve cut the herds down like that, to recover.”

As if to underscore Milovich’s words, on Monday Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order allowing water managers to streamline the transfer of water from agencies and individuals that might have a bit of excess, to those that had none.

It is a highly unusual move, brought on by the severity of the drought, according to state documents.

The DWP asked for Inyo County residents and ranchers to voluntarily cut back their use of water, both surface and groundwater, a request that had the Inyo County Board of Supervisors up in arms at recent board meetings, according to articles in the Inyo County Register.

“We’ll get through this,” Milovich told the Mono County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, as he gave his annual “Crop and Livestock Report” for both counties.

“But it’s not going to be easy. Pray for snow.”