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With little prospect of significant rain for the rest of the year, the Sonoma County Water Agency is preparing to ask the state for permission to slash the amount of water it releases into the Russian River in hopes of preserving the dwindling reserve in Lake Mendocino.

"We need to get out in front of this; the data (points) don't lie ... We're looking at some of the driest conditions in recent records," said Supervisor Mike McGuire, who represents the northern end of the county, which would be directly affected by reduced river flows. The supervisors also serve as the board of directors of the Water Agency.

Agency staff will meet with staff from the State Water Resources Control Board as early as today to see how far the state will allow it to cut back its water releases, which are governed by a state permit. The agency expects to file a formal request within the next two weeks.

Since the start of the year, the county has had less than 8 inches of rainfall as measured in Santa Rosa. Normally, that figure should be around 33 inches. So dry are the conditions statewide that state and federal lawmakers sent letters last week to Gov. Jerry Brown, asking him to declare a drought emergency, and to President Barack Obama, asking for a federal disaster declaration.

Water managers are comparing conditions to those in 1976 and 1977, the most severe modern drought in the region, McGuire said. That drought forced widespread mandatory restrictions on water use and led local governments throughout the area to develop aggressive voluntary water conservation programs that remain in place today.

There is no immediate threat of water rationing, the agency says, largely because the main reservoir at Lake Sonoma is still about 70 percent full, plenty to provide water for its 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties through at least one more dry year.

But upstream, the smaller and more volatile Lake Mendocino is down to only about 30 percent of its capacity. If the agency maintains its current release rate and the winter turns out to be critically dry, water managers could find themselves with no water to release next summer, spelling major trouble for the cities, farmers and wildlife that rely on the upper reaches of the Russian River — those areas north of where the Lake Sonoma water supply enters the river at Dry Creek.

"We have to plan for the long term" in restricting flows now, McGuire said.

It's not clear exactly how much the agency will ask to cut back the water releases; that is a detail staff will hash out at this week's meeting. As of Friday morning, the river at Healdsburg was flowing at about 115 cubic feet per second, or about 860 gallons per second.

The agency already has permission to drop that flow rate to as little as 75 cubic feet per second. Assistant General Manager Pamela Jeane said the agency has begun restricting the flow in the past week.

The agency would like permission to drop the flow lower than 75 cubic feet per second if necessary, possibly as low as 25, the lowest allowed under the permit. It is unlikely, however, that the agency would ask, or even get permission, for a level as low as 25, she said.

Water managers on the Eel River already have secured permission to radically reduce flows from Lake Pillsbury. On Thursday, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave PG&E permission to drop flows from 100 cfs to as little as 20 at various points on the river until at least the end of January.

That decision will exacerbate the problems at Lake Mendocino, since some water is pumped through a tunnel downstream of Lake Pillsbury, through a power turbine and into the Russian River above Lake Mendocino. The commission's decision allows PG&E to drop the flow through that tunnel from 35 cfs to just 5, depriving the Water Agency of a small but significant source of water to recharge Lake Mendocino.

The Water Agency's plan to drop flows into the Russian River below 75 cfs would conserve water, but it would have serious consequences for those downstream.

Conservationists say it could interfere with the spawning of endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout. Most of the salmon already have laid their eggs for the season, said Don McEnhill, executive director of Russian Riverkeeper, a conservation nonprofit, so reduced flows should pose only a minor threat.

The steelhead, however, have yet to start their winter trek upriver to spawn. Reduced flow in the main river, along with the dried out tributaries, could add up to a bad breeding season.

But the risk of reducing river flows today pales in comparison with the damage that would be done if the reservoir were to run completely dry in 2014, leaving the whole upper watershed parched.

In managing the remaining water, McEnhill said, "we almost have to assume that (rain) might not come so we don't have a much worse situation next summer."

News of possible reduced flows caused some concern in the cities along the upper Russian River, particularly Cloverdale, which has no alternative to the riverside wells that draw drinking water for the 9,000 residents.

"As flows in the Russian River drop, so does the ability of our wells to produce," City Manager Paul Cayler said.

The city is developing some alternative wells, but the first of those will not be online until at least July. In the meantime, city staff is drafting Cloverdale's first-ever ordinance providing for mandatory water conservation measures, such as limiting or banning landscape watering and car washing. He expects to offer an ordinance to the city council before March.

Cayler said he does not expect to have to order mandatory conservation at this point, but he wants to have the authority and plans in place "in case this drought turns out to be epic."

The city of Ukiah supplies itself from wells during the winter and doesn't expect major disruption from the agency's plans, said Public Works Director Tim Eriksen, though low flows might cause some damage to the intake in the river that the city uses to draw water during the summer. But an extended drought would reduce the amount the city could draw from the river next year.

Healdsburg, meanwhile, has backup wells on Dry Creek that rely on flows from Lake Sonoma, said Ryan Kirchner, operations and utility supervisor for the city. A reduction in the Russian River flow would affect the city's water supply somewhat, but it's hard to say how much without knowing details of the Water Agency's plans.

Even cities that don't rely directly on Lake Mendocino water are becoming alarmed at the ongoing dry conditions.

"We're looking at it as a dry year next year — another dry year — and we're taking it very seriously," said David Guhin, director of utilities for the city of Santa Rosa, the largest customer of the Sonoma County Water Agency water.

The city plans to aggressively advertise its existing voluntary water conservation plans starting this month and to urge water customers to save as much as possible.

The city does have in place an elaborate system of voluntary and mandatory water rationing plans. The last time they were activated by the city council was in 2009, when the city asked for voluntary conservation and banned a handful of water uses, such as washing down sidewalks or using an outdoor hose without an adjustable nozzle. Those measures cut water use by about 15 percent and got the city through that dry spell without more draconian restrictions, he said.

McGuire said the Water Agency and Board of Supervisors will be stepping up their call for conservation as well. Even with Lake Sonoma remaining at safe levels, it is not too early to begin worrying about an extended drought.

"We need everyone throughout the county to double down on conservation efforts ... We've got to hope for the best but plan for the worst," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BeerCountry.)

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