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Wednesday, November 8, 2000

Storm ‘a godsend’
for drought-ridden
ranch land

Last week's Big Isle rain soaked
the parched earth and
refilled catchments

By Gordon Y.K. Pang

The storm that inflicted destruction on the Hilo side of the Big Island late last week brought welcome relief to the drought-ridden ranchers and others in dire need of water on the west sides of Hawaii and Maui.

Officials from Waimea's Parker Ranch to Upcountry Maui's Ulupalakua Ranch said they were overjoyed to see the rain.

"We've got grass growing that hasn't grown in three years," said Corky Bryan, vice president of livestock production for Parker Ranch.

Bryan, who has been monitoring satellite weather photos on a daily basis, called last week's storm "a real godsend for all the cowboys." He said between two and five inches of rain fell on ranch lands between Wednesday and Friday.

The state's largest cattle ranch sent about 4,000 head of cattle to Canada and the U.S. mainland earlier this year because the 3-year-old drought has destroyed grazing grounds.

"They've had grass but it's really been dry," Bryan said. "So if we get a little bit of green in it, it's a lot better, mineral- and vitamin-wise."

Sumner Erdman, president of Ulupalakua Ranch, said his operation has had to cut the number of cattle by about 500, to 1,800 because of the drought.

"Just getting the rains allows us to start to rebuild the herds and return back, to some degree, to some normalcy," Erdman said. Ulupalakua, like Parker, got about five inches between Wednesday and Friday.

"It makes a big difference in terms of trying to recharge the water system, especially the water cycle within the ground helping the grass grow, just helping the nutrition of the cattle," Erdman said.

"The land's just much healthier, the cattle are just much healthier, it makes all the difference in the world."

Kevin Kodama, senior hydrologist for the National Weather Service, said some areas of the Big Island hit hardest by the drought were helped the most by last week's storm.

For instance, residents on catchment water tanks in the Hawaiian Ocean View Estates neighborhood in Kau said they "got more rain in that one day last Thursday than they did in the last three years combined," Kodama said.

"I guess their tanks are all pretty full now," he said.

Kahuku Ranch, near South Point, also relies heavily on catchment water for its operations and had been hauling water from Naalehu after its three catchment tanks went dry.

"For us, this was a good, welcome relief," said Earl Spence, ranch manager. He estimated that the tanks are half full now, "good for another three or four months," he said. "If this is any indication, we should steadily recharge."

A big help to the grounds on the thirsty leeward sides of the Big Island and Maui was the fact that the rain came down more steadily than in the Hilo area, where some places received a record three feet of rainfall in 24 hours.

"For the most part, it didn't come in major downpours," Kodama said. "To relieve the drought, you don't want it all at once because you don't want to waste it as runoff and go straight into the ocean, but they got decent amounts over several days."

Kodama stressed, however, that the ranchers are going to need more rain before the drought can be declared over.

"One rain event won't take you out. They've been dry for so long that they have a ways to go to help make up the deficit," he said. "But it helped them and I'm sure it's going to start up the new grass for the pastures, so that's good. But it's got to sustain, especially during the cool season."

Not surprisingly, the ranchers already know that.

"It was a good soaking rain, it's going to give us 30 to 60 days of good (grass) growth," Erdman said. "If we can get a couple follow-up rains, we'll have a good winter and that's what we need."

Winter rains are critical for the ranching industry, Erdman said, "because you don't have as much evaporation, allowing that water to settle into the ground and stay there."

Bryan said the rain will mean about three to four months of relief for Parker Ranch, but more rainfall is needed if the ranch is to hold onto the 20,000 head of cattle it hopes to breed this year.

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