Mendocino County Supervisors Tuesday unanimously declared a drought emergency, the first step in managing the county's dwindling water supplies as rainfall continues to bypass the North Coast.
"It's just really scary to see where we are with the water supply," said Supervisor Carre Brown.
The emergency declaration includes creation of a committee to evaluate the drought's effects on local water sources and draft a plan to lessen its impacts.
Wells are drying up and Lake Mendocino, a primary source of water in the Ukiah and Hopland valleys, is close to an all-time low following a year of record low rainfall. Just 7.67 inches of rain fell in the upper reaches of the Russian River last year.
The city of Willits, which has its own reservoirs, plans to impose mandatory water reductions.
Supervisor John Pinches, the newly appointed board chairman, voted for the emergency drought declaration but criticized county and water officials for failing to have acted to avert the problem.
There's a flurry of activity and discussion whenever there's a drought, then people forget about it when it rains," he said.
"How many times do we have to knock ourselves on the head before we get it?" Pinches asked. "Folks, we've got to come up with another water supply."
Pinches has long promoted finding new water sources. His ideas include tapping into Boy Scout camp reservoir near Willits and a much maligned proposal to build a pipeline from the Eel River at Dos Rios to a yet-to-be-built reservoir.
Pinches supports a decades-long effort to get the dam at Lake Mendocino raised, which could nearly double the amount of water it holds. But he says it would only fix part of the problem.
A dam-raising feasibility study has been in the works for years but funding to complete the study is inadequate and it's in danger of being shelved.
A bigger reservoir would allow the county to better weather a drought, but it wouldn't provide much more usable water for county residents and farmers, Pinches said, noting that Sonoma County holds the rights to about 80 percent of the lake's water.
In the years since the major drought of 1976-1977, Mendocino County's water has declined, Pinches said. Federal agencies have altered flow regimes in the Eel and Russian rivers during that time, changes largely aimed at reviving endangered fish populations.
Another, temporary reduction recently was made in the water diversion that shunts water from the Eel River, through the Potter Valley Power Plant and into the Russian River above Lake Mendocino. The Eel River diversion historically has provided a majority of the water in Lake Mendocino and the Russian River in summer months.
Supervisor Dan Hamburg said people should be prepare for the possibility of a worsening in drought conditions.
"Nobody's mentioned the elephant in the room, which is climate change," he said. "I'm afraid the new normal is low rainfall."