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RATIONING: Crops likely to be first casualty of drought

  • Dried mud at Healdsburg Memorial beach on Monday morning.

Drought conditions likely mean mandatory water conservation this summer in cities and towns from Windsor to San Rafael that rely on the Russian River, but the lack of rain poses far more urgent threats for grapegrowers along the river, water officials said Monday.

For city residential users, low flows would trigger widespread curtailment of irrigation of yard landscaping, beginning in June.

But the first to feel the impact could be Sonoma and Mendocino county grape growers who will have to reconsider whether to turn on the spigots for frost protection next month.

California drought 2008-2009

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"We will all suffer financial losses, as we did in the drought of 1976-77," said Pete Opatz, a Sonoma County Winegrape Commission member. "The crops are going to be light."

Sean White, general manager of the Russian River Flood Control and Conservation District in Ukiah, warned vineyard operators to be cautious with spraying for frost protection.

"The overall message to folks is if they burn through their agriculture allocation of water for frost, there's nothing left for irrigation, and they have no crop anyway," he said. "We only have one pot of water."

Residential and agriculture interests from Ukiah to Healdsburg are hardest hit by the drought, which has left Lake Mendocino at precariously low levels and ensured they will face 50 percent cuts.

Lake Mendocino on the Russian River is the primary -- and in many cases only -- source of water for users between Ukiah and Healdsburg.

On Monday, the reservoir had 31,100 acre-feet and would be dry by July if there are no conservation measures taken, said Pam Jeane, deputy director of operations for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

The agency is asking for 50 percent in conservation in that stretch of river, which would leave the lake with 15,000 acre-feet in October for the fall run of chinook salmon.


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