LIVING WITH DROUGHT
Reno-Tahoe farmers and gardeners learn to adapt with less water.
WRITTEN BY SUE EDMONDSON
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
Nevadans and Californians don't need scientists to tell us we're in a drought cycle. Parched farmlands, low reservoirs, and brown lawns paint the picture. What isn't so readily seen is its impact on livelihoods and lifestyles.
The drought hits farmers and ranchers where it hurts the most: their ability to earn a living doing what they love, in ways they've always done it.
Colby Frey of Frey Ranch Distillery and Churchill Vineyards in Fallon is a fifth-generation Nevada farmer. For decades, alfalfa paid the bills. With drastic cuts in surface water allocation, that's history.
"Over the last several years, we've added vineyards, which use 10 percent of the water alfalfa uses, and planted grains that use 20 to 40 percent less water," Frey says. "We're not just alfalfa farmers anymore. We're wine and liquor makers, too."
While modifying crops has worked for Frey Ranch, it's not for everyone.
"Some of the older farmers are selling or retiring. It's hard to jump through all the hoops to try something different," Frey says.
Ranchers face equal challenges. Fallon dairyman and Honest Meats owner and veterinarian Jason Storm added agricultural wells for crops and cattle, and replaced water-cooled systems with air-cooled systems for his milk.
"It was expensive, but we had no choice," Storm says.
Norris Albaugh, whose Fallon ranch is known for its beef, is now raising more sheep.
"This is probably what we'll do for long-term stability, both ecologically and financially," Albaugh says. "Cattle aren't sustainable on the amount of forage we can grow if we want to keep the soil healthy."
Despite restrictions, urban dwellers still can water their yards. Utility companies warn that this may change if the drought continues and consumers don't conserve.
Conservation doesn't mean the end of gardens. Experts say they'll flourish even with limited water. Soil health, composting, mulching, and drip systems are key.
Start with soil testing, both for pH levels and biology, recommends Reno landscape architect Jana Vanderhaar. Although the science is complicated, the bottom line is simple — beneficial soil bacteria and fungi are necessary for plant health. If those are missing, adding compost with the right minerals provides the optimal growing environment.
"Compost aids water retention and absorption, but soil preparation is critical," says University of Nevada Cooperative Extension educator JoAnne Skelly. "Loosen to a minimum of eight inches and turn the compost in."
"Surround plants with mulch to retain water," adds UNCE program officer Wendy Hanson Mazet. "Use natural materials like bark, lawn clippings if herbicide free, even pine needles. You want things that can be used by the plants the way they do in nature. But keep a safe perimeter around your house to reduce fire danger."
When it comes to watering, exchange overhead sprinklers for drip systems. Automated timers offer consistency.
"Cover areas where roots grow," Vanderhaar says. "Tree roots extend as far as their canopies."
Gray water systems, which recycle household water (except toilet waste), are one possibility. Though such systems are encouraged in California, Nevadans face local ordinances that either prohibit their use or make installation impractical.
"California figured it out. We can, too," Vanderhaar says.
For farmers and ranchers, drought-resistant crops may become the norm. But it won't happen overnight. In Dayton, Rob Holley of Holley Family Farms is waiting to make the change.
"The problem is that even drought-tolerant perennials need at least seven inches of water to become established," says UNCE educator and Ph.D. Steve Lewis. "It's hard to predict if we're going to have enough water for those crops, and you don't take out healthy stands based on speculation."
In the meantime, those who stay on their land do what needs to be done.
"You just ride the wave," Frey says.
Freelance writer Sue Edmondson has written for publications in Nevada and California. A dedicated gardener, she recently invested in a compost thermometer.
Rainwater collection basics
Anyone with rain gutters and level space for several 55-gallon plastic barrels can collect rainwater. Simply cut a hole in the barrel top for the gutter downspout and cover with a screen to keep debris free. Add spigots near barrel bottoms, connect barrels with a hose six inches from their tops, ending with an overflow hose. Seal around all cuts.
UNCE program assistant Melody Hefner outlines collection pros and cons.
"You'll capture hundreds of gallons of water in a single storm, but systems require regular maintenance," she says. "Freezing, leaks, flooding, mosquitos, and erosion are possibilities. Mulching well is an easier alternative."
Full Circle Compost's products are designed specifically for Nevada soils. Owner Craig Witt will make custom blends to match soil needs.
3190 Hwy. 395, Minden
For drought-busting tips, go to http://www.Www.unce.unr.edu Click on Horticulture.
Master Gardeners offer basic soil testing for a nominal fee. For details, call 775-784-4848.
For a list of private labs that test soil for nutrients, go to http://www.Growyourownnevada.com and click on Resources.
To see California gray water laws, visit http://www.Hcd.ca.gov and search for gray water.
Landscape architect Jana Vanderhaar outlines composting options:
1. Sheet composting to decompose lawns: Lay cardboard over grass. Add layers — organic matter, then wood mulch, then organic matter. Keep moist.
2. Cold composting: Fill a bin with organic matter, including vegetable scraps. Keep moist. Composting takes months, but little work.
3. Hot composting: Layer brown matter (leaves, straw, dry pine needles), green matter (veggie scraps, lawn clippings), and farm animal manure. Test with composting thermometer daily. Once it's 140 degrees F for three days, turn the pile. Compost is ready in 18 to 21 days.
4. Buy local, premade compost.