Dec. 31 marked the end of the driest year ever for Davis, but only the start of trouble for its neighbor farmers and ranchers.
Davis accumulated just 5.23 inches of rain last year — compared to 19.6 inches in a normal year. It’s the lowest amount since totals were first recorded in 1893, breaking a record of 5.64 inches in 1976.
In that respect, Yolo County is “in the same boat as everyone else in Northern California right now,” with a stubborn high pressure ridge parked over the region that’s keeping storms at bay, National Weather Service forecaster George Cline said Tuesday. Rain may be a week or so off.
“The models are being a little inconsistent, but something may be coming in,” Cline said.
The 30-day outlook shows below-normal rainfall, he said, but the 90-day trend is closer to normal: “That’s a good sign because that’s the wettest part of our year.”
Right now, it looks awfully bleak to Rachael Freeman Long, Yolo County director for the University of California Cooperative Extension.
Take wheat, for example. It’s the county’s 10th most important commodity, worth more than $20 million annually. Winter rainfall is needed to bring up the crop, but there’s been next to none.
“There’s a lot of fields out there where nothing has germinated. There’s a feeling of despair,” Long said.
Or oat hay, grown as cattle feed: “I’ve seen whole sections of land planted to oats and not a blade was coming up. It’s just a disaster,” she said.
There’s little feed for cattle and sheep in the hills, either.
“It’s very sad how brown the hills are. It should be solid green this time of year,” Long said. “It gets depressing.”
Clear Lake and the Indian Valley Reservoir, which provide surface water for county farms, have little or nothing to give.
While the county is blessed to sit atop aquifers that provide a stable amount of ground water, the cost of pumping it — as tree-crop growers are busy doing — will eat away at profits.
Growers will plant crops that require less water, choosing another crop instead of rice, for instance, but not all will have that option. In some instances, “if they depend on surface water, they just won’t be planting a crop,” Long said.
Disaster aid from Washington remains in doubt, with Congress unable to reach agreement on a comprehensive Farm Bill.
It’s been similarly dry up and down the state. Downtown Los Angeles received a meager 3.60 inches of rain in 2012, the driest calendar year since 1877. Normally, downtown would be soaked with about 15 inches of precipitation.
Similarly, San Francisco recorded just 5.59 inches of rain since the beginning of the year, 18 inches below normal. Sacramento is 14 inches below average after receiving 6.13 inches of rain this year.
The lack of rainfall does not bode well for the winter’s first snow survey that will be released on Friday. Real-time readings of the water content in the snowpack — which supplies much of California’s water — reveal it’s only 20 percent of normal.
Many of the state’s major reservoirs are below average for the month. Shasta Lake, the state’s largest reservoir, is currently at 37 percent of its total capacity. Folsom Lake recently dipped below 20 percent of its capacity, marking a historic low for December.
This triggered some communities in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta region to issue water conservation orders.
Folsom recently mandated that residents cut water consumption by 20 percent. Sacramento County asked unincorporated areas to voluntarily reduce water use by the same amount.
State water managers are also discussing transferring water from places with relative abundance to communities facing critical shortages.
Even before the state was gripped by record dryness, several cities, including Santa Monica and Long Beach in Southern California, had planned to reduce their dependence on imported water in the coming years by maximizing groundwater supplies, harvesting stormwater and increasing recycled water distribution.
Back in Davis, Wes Leith, superintendent for Wildhorse Golf Course, remained optimistic about the rain.
“I think it’s coming. I think we’re going to be fine. At this point, we’re not pulling our hair out,” he said. “We operate off a well out here, so we’re drawing out of the aquifer. It’s not too burdensome for us. Like everyone else, we want rain, and we want to replace the water in the aquifer.”
Leith said the cold nighttime temperatures have helped keep moisture in the soil. “Every couple of days we’ll give the sprinklers one turn,” he said, but nothing more.
“The upside is, a lot of people are playing golf.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.