Rainfall levels in Upcountry areas are below normal this year, and there's a bleak outlook for rain for ranchers and farmers as the islands head into the normally dry summer months, a hydrologist said Thursday.
"We're headed out of our wet season. The outlook is not too good," said Kevin Kodama, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service on Oahu.
From January through March, Kula received 5.5 inches of rain. Normally, it gets around 8.7 inches, Kodama said. Pukalani received 4 inches in the same time period while it normally gets around 16 inches. Ulupalakua received a little under 5 inches, and it usually gets about 10.
Ulupalakua Ranch cowboy Ryan Wendt drives cattle across a postcard pasture setting of flowering jacaranda and silver oak trees Wednesday afternoon as a recently culled herd heads to greener pastures. Wendt was moving the herd along with Wendell Wong, Emerson Makekau, Sam Akoi and Alex Santiago. Ulupalakua Ranch operations manager James Gomes said persistent dry conditions in recent years have seen rainfall drop from an average of 28 to 30 inches per year, to 13 to 14 inches. He said one solution to the drought conditions is to move the cattle often and use “rotational grazing.”
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"We're in really bad shape," said Sumner Erdman, president of Ulupalakua Ranch. "The economic impacts have already hit."
Erdman said this will be the fourth year his ranch has been impacted by dry conditions.
The economic losses amount in the "hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said.
The ranch has had to sell cattle. It now also sees cattle with lower weights because less rain means cows have less grass to feed on. The ranch also has lower reproduction rates because there are fewer cows to breed, Erdman said.
Over four years, the number of breeding cows has gone from 2,300 to 1,500, as the ranch sells them off to deal with the drought conditions, Erdman said.
The ranch currently has 3,800 head of cattle, with preparations under way to sell more, he said.
Warren Watanabe, executive director of the Maui County Farm Bureau, said the dry weather trend seems to follow the long-term prediction of scientists.
Because areas of extreme drought in Hawaii have increased in the past few months, with the hardest hit being the pasture areas on the Big Island, Maui and portions of Molokai, the farm bureau's priority during this legislative session has been to fund drought mitigation projects.
Watanabe said that one bill remains alive in the Legislature. In addition to drought mitigation funding, the measure will provide assistance to livestock producers for importation of feed that will be necessary during the drought, he added.
As the summer months approach, the county Department of Water Supply is closely watching its Upcountry reservoir levels and water intake to ensure a safe supply for the dry months, said Jacky Takakura, the department's administrative officer.
In the past month, reservoir levels have fluctuated slightly but overall remain steady, she said.
Upcountry remains in a drought watch issued since June 25, 2009.
Demand for water by Upcountry residents has increased. It was 8.8 million gallons Thursday, which is up from 7.5 million gallons on a day two weeks earlier, Takakura said.
Average demand has been 8.1 million gallons per day, and the department may see the number rise as summer approaches.
Erdman, who also keeps statistics on rainfall in Ulupalakua, said the last time annual rainfall was close to normal was back in 2009, when rainfall at Ulupalakua ranch headquarters was at 74 percent of median rainfall.
Erdman, who also is a partner and owner of Maui Cattle Co., said the ranch also is battling a problem with the kikuyu grass that cattle feeds on. The problem with the grass not growing as healthy as it would normally is not related to the dry conditions, he said.
Erdman said he is working with the state Department of Agriculture to find a solution.
"People driving up to Ulupalakua will notice a lot of weeds," he said of the grass problem.
Erdman said that although there is less suitable grass for his cattle, the cattle are still in "pretty good shape," although he has one or two herds that "could look a little better."
He added that it is too costly to ship in hay to feed the cattle.
Kodama said some heavy rain did fall in Upcountry during early March, but it was short-lived.
He said ranchers have told him that the rain is "not where it should be."
Erdman added that the rain in March was enough to keep grasses green, but it was not enough to spur growth.
Kodama predicted it will be a long time before the rainy weather revisits Upcountry.
The wet season is usually October through April, he said.
"From January through August, it's all down, down, down, down, down. The outlook is not good, barring some out-of-season storm," Kodama said.
Erdman added: "We're at the mercy of Mother Nature. We need Mother Nature to be very nice very soon."
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.