Photo/Dennis Myers By end of summer, the Truckee River, already low, could be a trickle.

Reno’s fire chief is worried.

“It’s one of the worst, driest seasons this community has ever seen,” said Chief Michael Hernandez. “It does not bode well for the upcoming fire season.”

Firefighting agencies have limited education resources. Hernandez hopes state and local government will help prepare the public for what’s ahead.

“We would follow suit with whatever the state does,” he said.

Record low snowpack, severe winter drought, low reservoirs, and weather patterns that indicate continued dry weather are combining to threaten Western quality of life.

The Nevada Water Supply Outlook Report issued on Jan. 8 by the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service had a photo on the cover that was captioned, “Dismal snowpack outside USFS [U.S. Forest Service] Lake Tahoe Mgmt. Unit Office, 6,300’ elev.”

The report read in part, “Because of the paucity of storm events and the long duration between said storms, snow that has accumulated at times has also melted, leaving even less for future runoff. The bottom line is that current snowpacks in western Nevada are near historic low levels. This on the heels of several dry years means that agricultural interests and water users need to be very proactive in managing water resources this year. It is not likely, given current conditions, that water supply conditions will recuperate to near normal conditions by April, the normal peak of snowpack. It is possible—just not very likely. To make matters worse, soil moisture conditions across the state are extremely dry, in many cases at the bottom end of historically observed values. Dry soils have to reach a saturated state in order to produce runoff—the dryer the soils are, the more melt is consumed to bring them to saturation.”

On Jan. 15, the Obama administration designated nine counties in Nevada as primary natural disaster areas due to drought. “Our hearts go out to those Nevada farmers and ranchers affected by recent natural disasters,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a prepared statement. “President Obama and I are committed to ensuring that agriculture remains a bright spot in our nation’s economy by sustaining the successes of America’s farmers, ranchers and rural communities through these difficult times. We’re also telling Nevada producers that USDA stands with you and your communities when severe weather and natural disasters threaten to disrupt your livelihood.”

The nine counties are Churchill, Clark, Humboldt, Lander, Lyon, Mineral, Nye, Pershing and Washoe. In addition, farmers and ranchers in eight counties also qualify for natural disaster assistance because their counties are contiguous. Those counties are Carson City, Douglas, Elko, Esmeralda, Eureka, Lincoln, Storey and White Pine. More public acreage will be freed up for grazing and there will be additional funding for forage. Emergency loan rates are reduced and land rehabilitation funds are available.

There have been similar drought designations in 10 states besides Nevada—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah—as the impact of drought settles with particular ferocity across the West.

Non-farm businesses and non-profit organizations who do not qualify for USDA help can be assisted by drought recovery loans through the U.S. Small Business Administration. These include small, non-agriculture firms, small agriculture cooperatives, aquaculture firms and private non-profits. Such Economic Injury Disaster loans can be used to meet debts and operating expenses—rent and overhead—which could have been met in the absence of the drought. The interest rate is 4 percent for businesses and 3 percent for nonprofits on terms of up to 30 years.

Help from above?

There seems to be little prospect of drought relief from weather.

The National Weather Service reported “snow-water equivalent values in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the lowest 5th percentile as of mid-January. … Meanwhile, across the interior West and Southwest, drought persistence or development is consistent with the CPC [Climate Prediction Center] monthly and seasonal precipitation outlooks.”

A Weather Service map showed Nevada almost entirely within a “Drought persists and intensifies” region.

“Outside of the northern Rockies and portions of Nevada and Utah, most of the West was very dry in December,” according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Nebraska. “Areas along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington had precipitation that was 9-12 inches below normal for the month. Moderate or worse drought increased from 49.99 to 51.44 percent of the region in December, and severe or worse drought increased from 30.86 to 31.11 percent. … The drought areas of the West are likely to persist and expand in January.”

The Mitigation Center, incidentally, ranks Nevada’s drought plan as “response based” rather than “mitigation based.”

On Jan. 17, California Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, released a 20-point drought plan, and urged Californians to reduce their water use by 20 percent. “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas,” Brown said. “I’ve declared this emergency, and I’m calling all Californians to conserve water in every way possible.”

Brown assigned various tasks, including contingency plans, to eight state agencies—the Department of Water Resources, Department of General Services, State Water Resources Control Board, Drinking Water Program, Department of Food and Agriculture, Department of Fish and Wildlife, Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Drought Task Force. He suspended several regulations or sections of state code.

The California mountain timber town of Willits, where the 1964 Reno arch is now installed, has less than 100 days of worth of water in its municipal reservoirs. Outdoor watering in banned, and a family of four is permitted to use just 150 gallons a day.

The Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, which serves Washoe county areas where range fires are a high risk, urged residents “to use maximum caution with any ignition source, including the careful disposal of fireplace and wood stove ashes.”

Chief Hernandez said the Reno Fire Department will be doing what education it can on the normal concerns about fire risks. “We urge fire-safe behavior,” he said. “The only thing we can control is human behavior.”

“Rapid fire growth and rapid fire disasters” make the activities of people important, Hernandez said. Open fire, smoking, defensible space around outlying homes are familiar points that are hit again and again to get a prevention message out.

“Making sure that outside summer activities like barbecuing is conducted in a safe manner is something we urge,” he said. “We want people to take every precaution possible.”

“We have a saying,” Hernandez said. “Man plans and God laughs.”

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...