DIXON — A drought-sapped Jepson Prairie is unlikely this year to give birth to a bumper crop of rare fairy shrimp and dazzling displays of wildflowers.
For most of the winter, the prairie’s vast, rain-fed vernal pools didn’t contain enough water for a vernal puddle. Recent storms may be too late for this ecosystem in eastern Solano County along Highway 113 to go through anything approaching its usual, brief cycle of life.
Kate Mawdsley and others who give guided tours at the 1,566-acre Solano Land Trust property have their doubts. They’ve agreed to call off the tours for the first time since 1992, the last year of a six-year drought.
“We really felt it wasn’t fair to say, ‘Look and see what vernal pools can be like’ when this is a year they’re not going to be that way,” Mawdsley said.
At best, it’s going to be a bad year for wildflowers, she said. She hasn’t seen any signs at Jepson Prairie that many of the plants people like to see have germinated.
Should the situation change dramatically, the guides could still put together tours for a brief period, she said.
Meanwhile, people can still go out to the Jepson Prairie preserve on their own to see what the drought has done to the environment there. The preserve is located near the intersection of Highway 113 and Cook Lane about 10 miles south of Dixon.
Jepson Prairie is home to clay-lined soil that holds water from winter storms, forming vernal pools. The largest is 93-acre Olcott Lake, covering an area twice as large as Fairfield’s Allan Witt Park when at capacity.
The prairie is a rare type of habitat and as such is home to a variety of rare creatures and plants, from the vernal pool fairy shrimp to the California tiger salamander to Colusa grass to the Delta tule pea.
During a typical year, guides give tours every weekend from early March to mid-May. They show visitors the vernal pools that in spring become an explosion of yellow, white, pink and purple wildflowers. Some guides have federal permits that allow them to dip into the pools for fairy shrimp so visitors can see the rare creatures.
Mawdsley got trained as a docent in 1987. She knows as well as anybody what Jepson Prairie should look like at this time of year.
On a recent visit, she saw an Olcott Lake covering about two-thirds of its normal area and much shallower than the 18 inches to 24 inches that is typical for the deepest parts. She saw vegetation she described as being very much retarded in its growth.
The vernal pools typically fill in December and stay at the same level until it gets warm in mid-March, then slowly evaporate until they are gone by June, she said.
“This, of course, has been anything but a typical year,” Mawdsley said.
Robbin Thorp is a bee expert and professor emeritus with the Department of Entomology and Nematology at the University of California, Davis. He too sees an atypical spring ahead at Jepson Prairie, no matter what happen from this point on.
“It’s too late to germinate most of those plants and get them into bloom now,” Thorp said.
Thorp saw Jepson Prairie during 1975-76 and 1976-77, a one-two punch of dryness that is the worst recorded drought in California. The state measures its rainy season from July through June.
A wildflower called meadowfoam was missing the second year of that drought. This caught Thorp’s attention because meadowfoam has a specialist bee that requires pollen it gets only from this plant’s white flowers.
Then came 1977-78, with abundant rain. Jepson Prairie bounced back with no signs of lasting harm.
“The meadowfoam was everywhere and the bees were everywhere,” Thorp said.
All of that means Jepson Prairie should bounce back from this drought, too. It has survived droughts that have come and gone over thousands of years.
“Both the plants and the bees have their survival mechanisms,” Thorp said.
Mawdsley said the flowers have seed banks. California tiger salamanders are adapted to not being able to breed for a year or two or three. Fairy shrimp cysts can last for years and even decades before hatching.
Thorp and Mawdsley both plan to visit Jepson Prairie this spring, even though the vernal pools won’t be in their full glory with plants and wildlife.
“This is not a good year to see the prairie at its best,” Thorp said. “But it is instructive to see how persistent the prairie can be over time.”
Mawdsley said she’ll go out at intervals to see what happens at the prairie.
“Every year is different,” Mawdsley said. “I’ve become attached to the place. I’m invested in it, really not in the financial sense, but I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours there.”
Please go to www.solanolandtrust.org/JepsonPrairie.aspx for more information on Jepson Prairie and how to visit it.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.