The North Coast needs an additional foot of rain between now and May just to get back to drought conditions seen in 1977, and even then Lake Mendocino could still go bone dry by autumn for the first time in recorded history, water officials said Tuesday.
The warning stunned North Coast grape growers who packed a Cloverdale meeting hall Tuesday to discuss ways of saving their crops amid the worst drought any of them can recall.
None of the strategies, which ranged from installing more wind machines to covering ponds with plastic tarps to reduce evaporation, compared with what everyone agreed is the most pressing need: more rain and lots of it.
If Lake Mendocino runs dry, it could be disaster for growers, in particular those with vineyards along the upper Russian River. Many rely on water from Lake Mendocino for irrigation, as well as for frost protection.
"If you're below Dry Creek, it's going to be a bad year. If you're above Dry Creek, it's going to be a biblical year," said Sean White, general manager of the Russian River Flood Control District.
Dry Creek is a Russian River tributary that carries outflow from Lake Sonoma, the principal water source for much of Sonoma County. Dry Creek joins the Russian River southwest of Healdsburg.
White's assessment silenced the crowd of more than 150 growers, vineyard managers, scientists and government officials who gathered Tuesday at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds for the meeting, which was sponsored by the Mendocino County Farm Bureau and Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Grape growers have been on notice for weeks that their livelihoods are at risk this year because of the dry weather, which has accelerated bud activity across the region and heightened fears of frost damage. As a result, many growers have purchased crop insurance.
"I think everybody's got a good sense of the reality," said Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County.
Lake Mendocino was at 36 percent of capacity Monday with 24,621 acre-feet of water, said Pam Jeane, assistant general manager of the Sonoma County Water Agency.
Jeane said the upper Russian River Valley watershed will need a foot of rain over the next three months -#8212; combined with a 45 percent reduction in demand -#8212; to return to levels recorded during the 1977 drought. The rainfall totals for the watershed are similar to what the entire region would need to return to 1977 levels.
White said outflow from the lake into the upper Russian River has been reduced to 30 cubic feet per second to conserve as much as possible amid drought conditions. He said the flow would need to be around triple that amount in order for officials to feel comfortable about the water being used for frost protection.
Devon Jones with the Mendocino County Farm Bureau said growers who divert water directly from the Russian River are "going to really have to think twice before you turn the pump on this year."
In 2011, state regulators took aim at the practice through new rules that would have limited use of Russian River water for frost protection.
Federal officials say such diversions are a primary cause of mass strandings for federally protected salmon and steelhead runs in the river. But growers, who contest those claims, challenged the rules in court. The case is currently on appeal.