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Dry Times

Drought. Even the word has a dry, raspy ring to it. Anderson Valley typically enjoys copious winter rain, but drought — for those who have lived in the valley long enough — is a known, if unwelcome, commodity. The dry years of 1976-1978 reduced the Navarro River to a trickle in late summer and in 1953 rain was so scant the Navarro went completely dry below Greenwood Bridge according to one observer. The late 1980s were no fun, either. But the impacts of those droughts were felt in September, October and November, not in January. The drought Anderson Valley and most of California is currently experiencing may well be unprecedented.

Floods in Anderson Valley are shared experiences. Houses — if not property — are mostly high and dry (experience has its benefits), so trash movers, as big storms are called in Boont, are rarely catastrophic. When the Navarro River and its tributaries spill their banks, we join our neighbors to watch the brown water roll, we travel in car caravans on the detour up to Navarro Ridge when Highway 128 is flooded and when the river recedes we mark the high water line to commemorate the events.

By contrast, droughts in Anderson Valley are — mostly — private experiences. In droughts, we individually have our well pumps lose their prime when air hits the foot valve or have them quit pumping when well levels drop below water-sensing electrodes. We have big trucks come to fill our water tanks and we write big checks to cover the cost. We consider how we can keep a vineyard or orchard going with little or no water, and whether we will have a crop next autumn. We look at our garden and decide what to water, what to let die and whether to plant. Yes, we discuss droughts, sometimes ad nauseam, but the pain is personal.

I visited Anderson Valley in late January to see the effects for myself. That last tiny rain — late December? Early January? — washed off the dust, and winter weather — though hardly cool during the day recently — mitigated the impact somewhat, so the valley doesn’t look terribly dry, but it is dry — very, very dry. Despite the lack of rain, the Navarro River continue to flow near Hendy Woods State Park, though at levels and with clarity more akin to late summer. Seeing the Navarro River so low in January as to be crossable in spots with a single stride is truly sobering when one considers how it might look in another two months if the weather doesn’t change.

My walk in the woods — in an area west of Philo — passed three springs. Surprisingly, all three were still flowing, though barely. The forest trees have held up well, but young Douglas fir trees in less humid, more open locations are dying. Tan oaks also seemed very dry; their leaves curling and brittle. Redwoods looked fine, though they are beginning — early, I think — to push buds for this year’s growth. Wildlife has forsaken the high ridges in favor of lower elevations with water sources. I saw three black-tailed deer, including buck with antlers, on the valley floor. I also saw signs of boar, though the damage was minimal — perhaps the ground too dry and too hard for rooting.

One longtime valley observer told me he thinks the current weather is an extension of autumn and that winter will arrive eventually. I hope he is right. A late winter would cause problems, but not nearly as many as a continuation of the current drought. Keep your fingers crossed.

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