Drought threatens cattle, farms, fisheries

Local headlines have been gleefully playing up that Californians can play in the sun, while folks in the Midwest and East Coast are smothered by snow and ice.

Cattle ranchers, conservationists and politicians, however, are battling over the effects of the current drought gripping the state.

Dry soil conditions are a problem for ranchers, who rely on spring grass as free food to fatten cattle.

To cut costs, many ranchers now sell back a large portion of their herd just to stay afloat.

 Monty Avery, rancher and co-owner of cattle auction house Livestock Market, detailed the damage to the AP:

“We usually sell about 100-150 animals per week. Now we’re seeing 800-1,000 per week, so the volume’s jumped up.”

 Romaldo Martin, a cattle rancher who runs M&M Farms in Hollister, will sell nearly half his herd:

 “If the weather doesn’t change, I might need to get rid of all of them, I’ve never seen anything like this in my life … It’s a disaster.”

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the drought conditions have hit central and northern California where a majority of California’s ranching is based.

The drought isn’t just causing concern for ranchers, but wildlife conservationists as well. Both Chinook and the endangered coho salmon populations are at risk of being decimated.

Usually, post-winter rains bring a surge of fresh water that signal salmon waiting in the ocean to swim upstream and spawn.

But lack of snow and rainfall have left the fish stranded, and dried up stretches of the Sacramento river have killed up to 40 percent of Chinook eggs.

Meanwhile, the endangered coho salmon of central California may face extinction if they do not spawn this year.

According to SFGate, 29 million gallons of drinking water were released from Kent Lake earlier this month in an effort to lure the coho salmon into the watershed.

California’s politicians are attempting to maneuver the political landscape in Washington, urging Obama to create a drought task force.

Even GOP House Speaker John Boehner joined the fray, blaming conservation efforts as the reason for the drought and suggesting a proposal that includes temporarily ending what is considered wasteful restoration efforts on the San Joaquin River.

But it may already be too late, according to Stafford Lehr, chief of fishers for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

“The Central Coast coho could be gone south of the Golden Gate.”

March rains may help the current state of drought emergency, though the impact of the drought may not be mitigated.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis, believes if this trend continues, farmers with senior water rights could profit hugely by marking up the price of water when selling to local businesses. Small towns in Central Valley could literally vanish.

But Californians, he said, would carry on:

“In the main urban economy, most people would learn to live with less water. It would be expensive and inconvenient, but we’d do it.”

Be sure to look at the current drought forecast for the country here.