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Stories from the valley

An October like no other

Contributed by Dan Macon

We’ve lived and ranched in Auburn for 15 years. During that time, I’ve kept daily weather records – tracking minimum and maximum temperatures and precipitation. And so when I say that this has been an October like no other, I have the records to back it up (at least as far back as 2001)!

Our sheep split time grazing on irrigated pastures (from late April through mid-October) and unirrigated rangelands. In a typical year, we move off of our annual rangelands as the grass dries out in late spring. Since our irrigation season ends when the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) shuts of our water on October 15, we hope for enough fall rain to get the annual grasses started again around that time. Since we’ve lived in Auburn, our average October rainfall has been just over 2 inches. This October, we received a whopping 8.34 inches! Things are wet (and green!) here in Auburn.

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We need about 0.75 inches of rain to start the grass. Ideally, this should be followed by alternating sunshine and continued rain. We like the grass to germinate early enough to take advantage of fall sunshine and relatively warm soil temperatures (grass goes dormant in our environment when soil temperatures drop below 50F or when the daylight hours decline around the winter solstice). Last month, we had a germinating rain the 15th. This was followed by clear days with temperatures in the 70s – and then more rain. The grass (and our sheep) love this weather!

Early germination isn’t always ideal, nor is fall precipitation always a good indicator of how the year will turn out. In 2013 (the beginning of the worst stretch of the current drought – at least for us), we had a germinating rain in early September, followed by a lengthy dry spell.  This early grass died for lack of moisture. After just 0.15 inches of rain in October 2013, we had another germinating rain in early November. After a very cold storm in early December, it didn’t rain again for more than 50 days. By early February (as we were preparing for lambing), we had no green grass.

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We also depend on snow in the Sierra Nevada. Most of our irrigation water falls as snow in the upper reaches of the Yuba River watershed to the east of us. Thanks to conservation on the part of farmers and ranchers (and folks in town) – and to prudent management by NID, we are headed into this winter with above average reservoir levels. This last weekend, the High Sierra received its first significant snowfall of the season. I hope it keeps coming!

I don’t put much stock in long-range weather forecasts – last year, after all, was predicted to be a monster El Nino year (it ended up being just slightly above normal in Auburn – and well below normal in central and southern California). The long-range forecasts I’ve seen for this winter are less certain – most of them lean towards normal to below-normal precipitation for northern California. After 5 years of drought, I guess I’ve become more comfortable with this uncertainty. In the meantime, I’m enjoying wearing my raingear and watching the grass grow!