District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins starts off a new Farm News feature, Supervisor’s Perspectives, where our county leaders have the opportunity to update the ag community on important county happenings.
I want to start by acknowledging that times are tough for farmers and small business owners. Costs are higher than ever. New challenges arise every year. We find ourselves counting our blessings if we’re able to avoid major catastrophes. (No fire this year? Consider yourself lucky! Your well didn’t run dry in the drought? How fortunate!)
We’ve always been subject to the vagaries of the weather, but these days it seems like we’re thrown from fire to drought to flood with little time in between to recover. While the Board of Supervisors can’t control the weather, we do have influence over a lot of things that have the potential to add to — or take things away from — your already-full plate as a farmer, business owner, or homeowner. And we also have access to resources that may help you weather the storm — or even the lack of rain. In this column, I’ll give you a rundown on some current challenges, possible solutions, and also share some resources and opportunities.
First up: permitting. We spend a lot of time in our office troubleshooting simple permitting problems for residents. I want to recognize that permitting times in certain divisions have become so timely and costly that many folks in West County don’t even bother to pull permits for work in unincorporated areas anymore. (When we were working on our own rural home, a majority of contractors we interviewed actually advised against pulling permits because of the tremendous time and cost it adds. This was a good wakeup call for me.)
Large-scale development projects will always require a lengthy, detailed review. Yet we have worked with residents who have spent years in permitting purgatory simply for trying to improve an existing septic system, install a fence, or replace a wooden backyard deck. (To which you might ask: who the heck pulls a permit to replace their deck? My point exactly. But technically you’re supposed to! And our office often hears about the negative consequences of not pulling permits, too. In addition to complicating real estate transactions, we sometimes hear about it when your neighbor complains, and code enforcement has to investigate.)
The bottom line is: we need to fix the system so it works for you, and you’re able to use it. This is why we launched a performance management review of Permit Sonoma, which will come to the Board of Supervisors for an initial public discussion on January 31, and then again on February 28. We are exploring solutions like express permitting, third-party inspections, and self-certification — all strategies that could streamline and expedite permitting processes.
Please participate in the public conversation if you are able, and continue to provide us with feedback on challenges you’re experiencing as well as what solutions you’d support. I’m hopeful that the proposals brought forward by the consultant we hired can create positive change and improve customer service for residents.
Second up: drought. It might seem odd to think about drought in light of the recent series of storms we’ve experienced, which dropped more than 19 inches of rain on Santa Rosa in 24 days. It rained for 20 out of 24 of those days.
The good news is that the amount of water stored in the county’s two main water storage reservoirs has more than doubled since the storms began Dec. 26. On Monday, Lake Sonoma was at 93 percent of its water-supply capacity, holding 236,078 acre-feet. Lake Mendocino surpassed the 80,050 acre-foot level used to trigger flood control releases, prompting the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to begin a series of high-flow releases from Coyote Valley Dam on Jan. 16. It’s the first time in four years the Army Corps has released water to ensure Lake Mendocino had enough room to prevent flooding if rains return later this winter and spring. As of Monday, it held 81,400 acre-feet.
While our reservoirs are filling up, unfortunately, our depleted groundwater aquifers and drought-parched landscapes will take longer to recover from the driest three-year period on record in California. January’s round of rain will certainly assist in enhancing the productivity of our grazing land, but dairy farmers and cattle ranchers are still hurting from years of drought and the skyrocketing cost of feed. USDA Emergency Relief program opened its applications this week, on January 23rd. For financial assistance for losses during 2020-2021 and 2021-2022, consider this USDA program and application: https://www.fsa.usda.gov/programs-and-services/emergency-relief/index. (You can also check out the Ag Commissioner’s website for additional resources, as well as a survey about the impacts you experienced.)
Next up: wildfire. Fire threatens residents and ranches alike, and at the County, we’re investing in and partnering with farmers to help fight fire and improve landscape resilience. Sustainable grazing is a critical tool for vegetation management. That’s why we invested funding in our local RCDs to launch a new program that supports farmers and landowners alike.
As Gold Ridge RCD explains, the pilot program launched last year and funded six community grazing projects countywide. In Occidental, one of those projects brought a flock of fifty-four sheep and twelve goats to graze twenty-six contiguous acres across three neighboring properties: Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Two Sisters Place and Mighty Arrow Ranch. The landowners said their goals for participating were primarily to mitigate wildfire risk, but also to restore the area’s degraded coastal prairie. By working together, the project had a larger landscape effect and gave the neighbors practice in planning and implementing a cross-property conservation project, something they’d like to do again, now that the logistics and infrastructure have been worked out. The landowners collaborated with local grazier John O’Mara, who brought his flock off of the Bodega Pastures property in nearby Bodega for the first time to participate in community grazing. John was excited to contribute his expertise and animals to this community resilience project. As he put it, “In between the meetings leading up to the job, between the moments of pounding in the electric fence, there is a deep palpable feeling of goodness. When many species come together for the good of the commons, it is a moment of wonderment and kinship.”
Together, the landowners, grazier and RCD mapped out the forage, fence-line, water resources, predator protection, and transportation necessary to keep the herd safe and healthy during their stay. After seventeen days, the result was twenty-six grazed acres of forest-lined coastal prairie. Low hanging tree branches were pruned up by browsing goats. Prairie grasses and forbes were clipped and stomped close to the ground by sheep. This management increases the open space between the ground and the canopy, which can help prevent ground fires from leaping into the treetops, as well as slow the accumulation of flammable vegetation. In addition, the herd transformed the consumed vegetation into nearly 200 pounds per day of nutrient-rich manure, which stimulates the prairie’s carbon cycle. The Sonoma County RCDs are proud to support our community through the LandSmart Grazing program, and look forward to continuing the program in the new year.
Finally, the storms! We’ve been working around the clock to clear roads, communicate with residents, and assist with recovery. During the storms, we activated Community Support Centers in Fort Ross, Bodega Bay, Occidental, and Guerneville. After the storms passed, we stood up Recovery Support Centers in Guerneville and Healdsburg, as well as a virtual (phone-in) support center for the North Coast. The Recovery Support Centers offered emergency financial assistance to low- and moderate- income residents and families. Many of the residents who came to utilize these services work in agriculture, and had been impacted by localized flooding, prolonged power outages, or lost work. By January 20th, more than 1,100 people had been served.
Thanks for reading. If you have any comments or concerns, please feel free to share them with me at Lynda.hopkins@Sonoma-county.org.