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Drought thinning the herd of ranchers in Nevada

After three years of arid skies, the cow counties of the Silver State are drying up, and ranchers are selling out


LOVELOCK, Nev. — After two punishingly dry years, nearly 2,000 cattle ranchers attending the annual meeting of the Nevada Cattlemen’s Association piled into the ballroom last November hoping for good news from the keynote speaker, a meteorologist. Instead, as the weatherman warned that the region is in a 15-year drought cycle and that this winter was bound to be as bad as any, J.J. Goicoechea saw a roomful of grizzled, stoic men exchange panicked glances in stunned silence.

“There was a look of loss on everybody’s faces,” said Goicoechea, a fourth-generation rancher and a commissioner for Eureka County, in the north-central part of the state.

Source: National Resources Conservation Service
Dave Meyers

The 39-year-old scanned the room, wondering what would become of the familiar faces whose businesses were already in precarious shape, thinking about the others not there who had always seemed like lifers until they sold out. The climate was thinning this herd too.

“That’s when I knew,” he said.

While the continuing epic drought in Northern California has alarmed many across the nation this winter, its devastating and potentially permanent impact on the Silver State has gotten far less notice. Nevada may be known primarily for gambling and tourism, but agriculture — in the form of cattle and alfalfa hay production in the northern, so-called cow counties — vies with mining as the No. 3 industry. The severely underwhelming snowfall so far this season threatens to further decimate it.    

Across the vast high desert plains from the Lake Tahoe area to the Utah border, reservoirs are depleted; rivers and lakes are reduced to chalky, salty residue; and farmers who would be planting are staring with anger and angst at the clear, frustratingly silent skies.

“If we don’t get rain the next month or six weeks, there’s going to be herd liquidations,” said Monte Bruck, manager of the Fallon Livestock Exchange, which holds a weekly cattle auction. “It’s going to be very severe.”

The sign for the Nugget Casino, near Silver Springs, Nev., stands out against bare mountains, which should be covered with snow this time of year.
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Such liquidations, in fact, have been ongoing. The state’s beef herd is the lowest in the nearly 80 years of record keeping, down to 345,000 heads, according to the Nevada Department of Agriculture. In the 1980s, the figure was as high as 1 million.

Goicoechea Ranches, for instance, sent 100 of 700 mother cows to slaughter last year in anticipation of not having proper water or grazing ranges to sustain them, Goicoechea said. He expects the state to lose another 10 percent of its cattle this year to sell-offs and moves; ranchers who can afford to may move their herds as far as Nebraska.

Cattle ranching “won’t come back, and it can’t,” he said glumly. “I don’t know what happens to these ranches. Maybe they’ll be bought up by larger corporations. I honestly do believe family ranching operations take better care of the resources.”

Some of the gear used by the chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources to measure snow depth and weight.
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Unlike usually verdant California, droughts come and go in Nevada. This one, however, is especially difficult because this is the third exceptionally dry year in a row, depleting stored water and thrusting fallow fields into long-term crisis, experts say.

“This has been three of the driest years in recent decades, and they’ve been consecutive,” said Bill Patzert, an oceanographer based in Pasadena, Calif., who develops climate forecasting technology for NASA. “Nevada is always on the cusp of disaster, water-wise. Everything is in the open range, so they’re on their knees. If there’s no rainfall, there’s no grass. Everything is so crispy.”

Drought is defined, of course, by its numbers — and these are exceptionally brutal. The most recent measure of the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, conducted Jan. 30 by the California Department of Water Resources’ chief snow surveyor, Frank Gehrke, found just 12 percent of what’s normal. As a result, various Nevada basins that are fed by the Sierra snowpack are as low as 15 percent of the average.

Across Nevada, the flow into the Humboldt River from the Ruby Mountains that ring Elko is equally meager. At the Rye Patch Reservoir near Lovelock, for instance, dam operator Joe Karr said last week that, for the first time in the reservoir’s nearly 80-year existence, there might be no water released downstream. Normally by early February, water laps at the sides near the top of the dam, but this year the concrete floor of the dam’s lock is merely spotted with a few modest puddles.

If Karr’s prediction holds — and climatologists expect the next months to be just as parched — 2014 will be a total loss for many.

“That means we won’t have any crop,” said Dan Knisley, owner of the 3,000-acre Great Basin Farms near Lovelock. “We’d have whatever God would provide for with rain in the summer. We’d have no grain crops, no wheat crop. Some marginal alfalfa will die out.”

Frank Gehrke, right, chief snow surveyor for the California Department of Water Resources, measures the snow at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, Jan. 30, 2014.
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Ann Lattin, 68, married to Rick Lattin, whose family has worked the 400-acre Lattin Farms in Churchill County, 50 miles east of Reno, for more than 60 years, said the family is already expecting to reduce hiring this year.  

“Well, we’re pretty nervous,” she said. “Rick and I have retirement we live off of, but we have people who depend on us for a living. During the harvest, we’re up to 30 to 40 employees, but we couldn’t plant anything in the fall. We usually plant winter rye or wheat … We’re really hunkering down.”

The Rye Patch Reservoir is the centerpiece of a popular state park and recreation area, but its boat launch stands high and dry at least 15 feet above the water line. The speed at which the level fell has stunned Park Ranger Josh Ivins, who took the job in 2010 when the reservoir was just 3 feet below of capacity.

The nearly depleted Rye Patch Reservoir, outside Lovelock, where the boat launch now stands 15 feet above the water.
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“Where the ramp is, there was water,” Ivins said. “It is kind of shocking to see that much water go in couple of years. And this is really the only lake up here that’s really got a lot of water left in it.”

Oddly, the drought is barely felt in northern Nevada’s urban hub, the twin cities of Reno and Sparks, where Truckee Meadows Water Authority officials boast that their customers probably won’t have any water restrictions to contend with, thanks to a series of reservoirs and private water rights that can keep up the flow.

“We’re vastly different than the water utilities in California,” TMWA senior hydrologist Bill Hauck said. “We’ve been reading news reports about what’s going on just over the hill in California with water restrictions, but we have a lot of built-in redundancy. If this current dry spell continues, we’re full prepared to handle it. Right now, we’re not asking the customers to do anything differently.”

Hauck said there’s little the city can do for the nearby farmers and ranchers, but Goicoechea disagreed. Some of the water that the TMWA slurps up comes from the same sources — Lake Tahoe and Sierra runoff — he said.

Goicoechea, a former president of the state’s cattlemen’s association, said it’s a bit jarring to contemplate city dwellers going on as usual while crops die, cattle herds are thinned out, ranchers go bankrupt and wildfire dangers surge.

“As farmers and ranchers are going under, people in Reno will still be able to wash their cars, and the fountains will still go on in town,” he said. “We should all be in this together.”