The sun beating down on a bone-dry gravel bar beneath Lutheran Bridge symbolizes what at least two Carson Valley growers are describing as the worst drought in their lifetimes.
On Tuesday, Fred Stodieck, whose family has ranched and farmed acreage near Waterloo Lane since 1868, said he couldn't recall a time when there was no water, not even a trickle, flowing under the bridge in Gardnerville.
The irrigation diversion for Stodieck's 400 acres of grazing pasture, hay fields and seed garlic happens to sit just below that bridge.
"This is probably the worst drought," the 67-year-old said. "I've seen bad years, but never this much trouble keeping water going down the river."
Stodieck characterized the riverbed as a hot, thirsty sinkhole where not enough moisture can accumulate to flow downstream.
"Everybody's hay is down about a third of normal," he said. "Most everybody is out of water now. Those with older water rights are being served."
That leaves upstream reservoirs the only silver lining for ranchers like Stodieck, who don't have supplemental well rights.
"I'm down to two cuttings, and I won't go for a third," Stodieck said of his hay crop. "I grow mixed alfalfa, mixed grass, and straight grass. It's certified weed-free, and the quality is still good, but the quantity is down about a third."
In a normal year, Stodieck said, he harvests about 4-5 tons an acre. On 200 acres in hay production, that would equal 800-1,000 tons. Now subtract a third.
"I have 125 head of cattle, and I usually set aside what I think I'll need to get through the winter," Stodieck explained. "I sell hay and also have my own feedlot. So I've sold only half as much as normal this year. If the winter comes through quickly and we get some fall growth, then I won't have to feed as much this winter. But we're having a hard time right now keeping the stock water."
Stodieck also leases acreage to seed garlic growers. While the summer harvest should be commencing in the next week or two, he's doubtful whether farmers will be able to plant in the fall for an early spring crop.
"This last storm left one-tenth of an inch in the water gauge," he said. "That's barely enough to keep the dust down."
Andy Aldax, 78, has been raising hay on the family farm near Airport Road his entire life. Flood irrigating from the East Fork of the Carson River on a two-week rotation, he averages about 600 tons of mixed hay a year from three cuttings.
"The tonnage is definitely lighter than normal," he said. "We might get a little from a third cutting on some of the better fields."
Aldax said he's not surprised by the severity of the drought.
"There was no winter. I don't think I remember a drought as bad as this one," he said. "We're drying up just like everyone else. Fortunately, we have an irrigation well that helps us. Otherwise it'd be real bad because there's not much flow in the river anymore. It's serving just a few early priority rights.
"It's still the first week of August, so there is quite a bit of summer ahead of us. We're always hoping it will be better next year, though."
East Fork Federal Water Master Julian Larrouy, who has held the post for 23 years, said the present drought is without question the worst he's seen in his career.
"The whole Valley is suffering," he said. "We've had a hard time getting water down the river because it's so dry. We lose a lot in evaporation and low flows. More of it is going into the ground. It's very difficult."
Larrouy said he's been tapping into upstream reservoirs since June, including Lower and Upper Sunset lakes, Tamarack Lake, Wet Meadows, Kinney Meadows, and Lower and Upper Kinney lakes on Ebbetts Pass. Unfortunately, many emergency allotments have been exhausted.
"The quotas right now are so small that there's hardly anything to irrigate with," he said.
According to the Alpine Decree, when the East Fork drops below 200 cubic feet per second, one third of the water is automatically diverted along the Allerman Canal on the east side of the Valley, and the remaining two thirds continue downstream.
Larrouy said about 9 cubic feet per second is being diverted at the Allerman Canal, leaving about 18 cubic feet per second downstream.
"The rest of the river is getting eaten up," he said. "I certainly hope we get something. If we have another dry winter, we'll really be in trouble."
On Wednesday, Douglas County Manager Steve Mokrohisky said the county had assisted the state in evaluating and ultimately declaring a drought emergency to the Department of Agriculture.
"We worked with the ag community on this, and we recommended to the governor, and the governor recommended to the Department of Agriculture to declare the drought in Douglas County," he said. "This declaration allows ranchers to access federal funds for loss of revenue due to a drought."