Environment / Nature

Rainfall declining in San Benito County

Water district officials discuss possible return to drought conditions.
Rainfall in the county from 1874 to 2019. Photo courtesy of SBC Water District.

Weather patterns in San Benito County are changing and the county may be returning to drought conditions, according to two water district officials.

The San Benito County Water District has measuring stations all around the county, including in San Juan Oaks and behind the water district’s office at 30 Mansfield Road in Hollister. County rainfall is not merely the average of measurements taken at these sites, since it can vary wildly across different locations.

“You can get numbers in South County that are much higher than they are here, depending on where the weather station is placed,” said Jeff Cattaneo, water district general manager. “There’s stations up on the mountains that catch some of the water that’s coming over the Salinas Valley, that rises back over the peaks. Those weather stations receive a lot more rain than we do on the valley floor.”

Cattaneo told BenitoLink that the driest year in recent memory was 2013-14, which yielded 5.3 inches of rain. The current rain year, 2020-21, began in October. Since then, only 5.6 inches of rain have fallen on the valley floor. The extreme dryness of November and December are the chief causes of this low total. A three-day “atmospheric river” storm, which washed out a section of Highway 1 south of Big Sur and prompted evacuations in Monterey County, kept January from recording near-zero rainfall; February was also bone-dry. “If it hadn’t been for that one good storm,” Cattaneo said, “we would be very hurt.”

Water Conservation Program Manager Shawn Novack, a frequent contributor to Benitolink, expects that future rain seasons will be shorter and more intense. The January storm follows the pattern of the 2017 “atmospheric river” that flooded Lovers Lane, and the future might well hold more droughts interspersed with large storms.

5.6 inches is half the rainfall that San Benito County historically receives by this time of year.

Other weather indicators from around the state suggest an approaching drought. The state’s snowpack (the source of a third of its water) is expected to weigh in 50% of its historical average, according to Novack, and southeastern California is experiencing an “exceptional drought,” the top tier of the U.S. Drought Monitor. San Benito County is experiencing “abnormal drought,” the second tier. 

Still, the experts aren’t gravely worried about the water situation taken as a whole.

“We still have a very robust groundwater basin. The majority of the water used in San Benito County comes from wells, and they rely on that groundwater basin,” Cattaneo said. “We have a very robust program to keep the groundwater basin replenished.”

San Benito County stores water in reservoirs and buys 20,000 acre-feet of water each year from the Central Valley Project. The pipes and canals for that water run along Highway 5 and come from the San Luis Reservoir. Much of San Benito’s water also comes from reservoirs in Northern California. The infrastructure that imports all of that water was built at the cost of $500 million.

However, Novack warns that San Benito County should start preparing for drought. Farms and businesses have already learned to police their own water use, prompted by the high cost of water from outside the county.

Farmers who raise livestock on natural grass feel the lack of rain more than crop farmers do, who can more easily transition to basin irrigation. Rancher Allan Renz, who raises cattle in San Benito County, told Benitolink that the drought was giving hardship to him and other ranchers.

“We started early, culling old bulls, dry cows (cows not raising a calf), and rotating cattle though pastures faster than normal,” Renz said. And among healthy cows, “instead of weaning a 700-750-pound steer, we are looking at selling a 550-600-pound steer [because] the grass season [and] calf growth started later. Now the grass season looks like it will end sooner than normal. This means a $250-300 per head loss, a 20-25% loss from our normal income.”

Residential users account for most of the water wasted in the county, Novack said.

“In the residential sector, over 50% of their water goes to landscape irrigation. I saw somebody that had their sprinkler on when it was raining,” Novack said. “Make sure you don’t have any leaky plumbing, that you have your landscape irrigation set properly. These are all things that my office can help you with. You can save a lot of money on water if you’re careful with its use.”


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Andrew Pearson