By Sarah Bush News-Press Correspondent
A local wild horse rescue group may be the latest victim of the worst drought in California’s history.
The groundwater wells on the Return to Freedom Wild Horse Preservation and Sanctuary have run dry, and local water officials fear others in the area will likely follow.
The non-profit organization is located along Jalama Road in Lompoc. The 300-acre ranch is just outside the boundaries of any local water district, which means owner Neda Demayo is on her own to find an alternative source of water.
When she and the staff learned that the groundwater levels in the well on the property had fallen below what is necesary to pump, they were forced to begin trucking water in.
“We need 5,000 gallons of water a day,” she explained. That will cost their non-profit organization about $15,000 a month.
Bruce Wales, general manager of the Santa Ynez River Water Conversation District, believes many other landowners in the area that rely on their own private wells will be facing a similar fate in the near future.
“We are hearing about this everywhere,” he said. “Peoples’ wells are going dry.”
Mr. Wales said the combination of the hot, dry weather, which has increased the demand for water, along with a lack of significant rainfall over the past several years, has contributed to the dire situation.
He said it will take a lot more than a good rain to remedy the problem in upland water basins.
“We need a run of years with double the normal rainfall. We haven’t had that since before 2006,” he explained. “As the dry conditions continue, more and more people who live in areas outside any local district will be on their own. The shallower their wells are, the sooner that (water running out) will happen.”
Mr. Wales said if a local water purveyor found itself in a similar situation, it would likely be forced to ration water to what’s required for health and safety, and he said that could happen.
“That is why it is so important for people everywhere to cut back on water usage by 20 percent or more,” he said.
Despite her family’s history at the Lompoc location, Ms. DeMayo has been working on relocation strategies for a majority of the herds. She and her family founded Return to Freedom about 16 years ago.
“I love this area,” she exclaimed. “The people here have been so supportive.”
Return to Freedom currently cares for more than 200 horses, said Ms. DeMayo. To help deal with the current water shortage, she is hopeful there may be appropriate land available to lease, until a more permanent solution can be found.
A landowner in San Luis Obispo County has offered to provide sanctuary for about 30-60 horses. But before that can happen, new fencing will need to be installed on portions of the property, Ms. DeMayo said. She is hoping to raise the money to help pay for the project so she can transfer the horses as soon as possible.
Another solution to the organization’s current needs could come in the form of a large 2,000- to 3,000-gallon water truck so Ms. DeMayo and staff could pick up their own water, she said.
She is not only faced with the urgent need for water now, she is focused on the bigger picture.
Return to Freedom has been working on a capital campaign to raise $10 million to establish a Wildlife and Wild Horse Land Trust.
“I’ve been looking in Northern California and Oregon,” she said. “This area just doesn’t support a lot of horses.”
Finding the perfect location will not be easy. According to Ms. DeMayo, wild horses need varied terrain and a diverse habitat to keep them healthy.
Ms. DeMayo joined forces with actor Robert Redford to spread awareness about America’s horses and her organization’s mission.
“These horses are interwoven into the very fabric of what is America. What threatens them threatens us all. I support the pioneering and innovative efforts of Return to Freedom and I urge you to do the same. America’s wild horses are fighting for their last stand. Competition for our natural resources continues to threaten our wilderness areas and wildlife species,” said Mr. Redford in a quote taken from the Return to Freedom website.
Ms. DeMayo believes the challenges she and the horses she cares for are facing here will only continue to escalate and affect others everywhere.
In drought situations, cattle ranchers have the option to sell off their cattle, she explained. The wild horses at Return to Freedom are not for sale and only a small minority are available for adoption through a thorough adoption process.
For those that are adoptable, Ms. DeMayo said she is extremely careful and will only consider applicants with a pasture, and who are experienced with natural techniques used at the sanctuary.
Return to Freedom is a nationally respected organization that provides leadershp on the issues facing wild horses across the country, said Ms. DeMayo.
Return to Freedom was created as a model to explore minimally invasive management solutions for wild horses that can be applied on the range, she explained.
The organization encourages the public to visit in an effort to educate people about a wild horse’s natural behavior and to build appreciation for these social mammals.
To learn more about Return to Freedom and how you can support the organization, click here.
Photo Credit: Vikki Hunt
To donate towards their Emergency Water Fund, click here.