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Three years of hot summers and winters lacking adequate snowfall are taking their toll on Dwayne Combs and other ranchers trying to make a living from the Nevada’s already dry landscape.

Combs is struggling to maintain a healthy herd as water resources run out and feed costs continue to soar.

“I’m out of irrigation water,” said Combes, ranch manager at Smith Creek Ranch, located about 85 miles east of Fallon. “We are just going to drop back and punt. We are trying to drill some wells and get some water out of the ground. For most of us, we deal with runoff, surface water and it has been pretty tight.”

So in the meantime, Combs said he’ll just have to “hunker down” and buy the supplemental feed that they’ll need to feed the herd in the winter. Due to the drought, feed or hay is priced at $300 per ton, up from the $125 per ton last year.

That cautious approach could mean ultimately Smith Creek Ranch will sell off cattle to buy more feed for the winter. Combs said the ranch has already sold off 10 percent of its herd, leaving the ranch with 1,000 cows.

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“We are just going to have to shell out the money and buy it,” Combs told KNPR’s State of Nevada on Wednesday.  “It’s going to be expensive. We’ll get through it. We’ll tighten our belts. That’s one thing agriculture is good at … tightening our belts and getting through what we have to.”

Droughts have happened before, of course, but scientists say this one is unique for a number of reasons.

Beau Uriona, a hydrologist with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, said the impact has been less snow in the Sierra Mountains, which means less run off and more reliance on underground wells. Uriona said so any measurable rain fall or run off would replenish underground water supplies, while leaving river and streams at low levels.

Reservoirs in Nevada are also at dangerously low levels thanks to three years of drought.

“Our reservoirs are basically puddles now,” Uriona said. “We have such little water in the bank … just to recover is going to take a couple of good years of snowpack.”

Drought has forced the Farm Service Agency to provide loans to ranchers and farmers in Nevada. The agency, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has designated 11 counties statewide as primary disaster areas due to the drought.   

The FSA said those counties are: Churchill, Douglas, Carson City, Launder, Mineral, Pershing, Clark, Lyon, Nye, Washoe and Humboldt.

Both Combs and Uriona were cautious about pinning their hopes for some relief from an El Nino, which has been forecasted to arrive later this year. An El Nino is a weather phenomenon associated with warmer than average surface water temperatures in the ocean off the west coast of South America. Strong El Nino’s have produced some major winters in Nevada.

“We could see a better winter this year,” Uriona said. “It’s forecasted to be a mild or moderate El Nino. But any El Nino gives is a chance to have a good year.”

El Nino or not, many farmers and ranchers in Nevada will have to learn to live with less water in the future. It’s the same drought that California has been experiencing over the last few years.

“In rural California, they have 50 percent to 60 percent unemployment,” Pat Mulroy, senior fellow of climate adaptation and environmental policy at Brookings Mountain West told KNPR. “The magnitude of that lack of water resources becomes profound. For Nevada it is the same thing.”

Mulroy, who also holds the Maki Distinguished Faculty Associate position at the Desert Research Institute, urged Nevada to develop “some real water strategies” to protect ranchers and urban areas.

“I don’t think we have a choice,” Mulroy said.  “We have to balance the needs of agriculture and urban communities.”

Mulroy also congratulated Las Vegas for its conservation efforts.

“We don’t talk about our net footprint because we recycle everything,” Mulroy said. “For the driest city in the United States to have a net footprint residentially of 75 gallons per person, per-day is phenomenal.”  


Dwayne Combes, ranch manager Smith Creek Ranch

Justin Huntington, Desert Research Institute

Beau Uriona, hydrologist U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service

Pat Mulroy, former general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority and senior fellow of climate adaptation and environmental policy at Brookings Mountain West

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