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Gary Bodensteiner is not kidding around with the drought.

The retired doctor’s front yard in Willits is artificial turf, and the brown mound in back with a flag sticking out of it was once a putting green worthy of a country club. He said he showers every other day. A bucket collects the runoff for his plants.

“We all have to change how we live,” he said. “Everybody has to work together.”

Not everyone shares that sentiment. While response to drought on the North Coast is more obvious in places such as the Mendocino County city of Willits, elsewhere around the region, lush, green lawns still thrive in the late summer sun, people enjoy leisurely showers and swimming pools still beckon with blue water.

There’s a drought on, as the ubiquitous ads point out, but the way people are responding to it is largely a matter of personal choice. The drought’s impacts differ county to county, city to city, sometimes neighborhood to neighborhood. And there are no one-size-fits-all approaches to dealing with it.

Jaime Licea, Healdsburg’s parks superintendent, replaced the lawn at his Fuchsia Way home with black mulch and native trees because he wanted to set a good example for his neighbors.

“How can I tell people to conserve water if we have a green lawn outside our house?” Licea said.

Doris Julius, who lives in Clover Springs, a retirement community in Cloverdale, said grass “has become a luxury.” She’s let her lawn die in preparation for replacing it.

Sheri Russ, however, said she’s not ready to part with her green slice of heaven outside her Humboldt Street home in Santa Rosa’s junior college neighborhood.

“We don’t want it to look dried up. It’s mostly for curb appeal,” she said.

The state of your lawn has become a telltale sign across the North Coast of your commitment to conserving water. But it’s only one indicator. Many wonder whether they are doing enough, or too much, as everyone anxiously awaits the arrival of winter storms.

Even after a third consecutive year of extremely dry conditions, including the driest year on record in 2013, many North Coast residents still are confused about the magnitude of the threat and what’s expected of them in order to deal with it. Some have made serious, life-altering changes. Others are abiding by voluntary cutbacks requested of them by local authorities. Still others are making no changes at all.

How serious is this drought, really? People want to compare conditions now to the drought of 1976-77. But in many respects there is no comparison. Certainly the North Coast has yet to see wide-scale bans on outdoor watering, rations on indoor water use or the National Guard mobilized to conduct round-the-clock water hauls to rural farms and homes in Sonoma County, as was the case four decades ago.

On the other hand, state authorities in May took the unprecedented step of ordering hundreds of water rights holders on the upper Russian River to stop diverting water from the drought-stricken watershed because there isn’t enough water to go around. The order affected 652 water rights issued after Feb. 19, 1954, held by dozens of farmers and local water agencies, some of which rely on the river for their main supply.

Therein lies a key difference between droughts now and then. Now, 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties have access to water from Lake Sonoma, which opened in 1982 and as of last week was at 63 percent of capacity. The lake, which empties into the river at Healdsburg, has helped insulate Marin and southern Sonoma County from the worst of the drought’s impacts.

It’s a different story on the upper Russian River, between Healdsburg and Lake Mendocino, which last week was at 30 percent of capacity. Up north, the drought poses a more serious threat to livelihoods.

“If it’s another dry winter, honestly, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Ken Todd, a grape grower in Redwood Valley north of Ukiah.

In late August, a choking dryness pervaded the valley. A sign advertising a water truck for rent greeted visitors entering the community’s modest central core. Lawns and grass on ballfields had died and turned brown. Those agricultural ponds that still had water in them did not appear to have enough to last for much longer.

In April, the Redwood Valley County Water District shut off water supplies to nearly 200 farming customers who collectively relied on the district’s water to irrigate 2,000 acres of vineyards and other crops. Residential users are limited to 50 gallons of water per day, per person.

For the first time, Keith and Ann Tiemann have been checking the water level on the well at their Webb Ranch Road home almost daily out of concern they could be depleting the precious resource. They’re also using shower water to irrigate their plants.

The drought “makes you aware of your wasteful ways,” Ann Tiemann said. “I’d like to think we’ll continue to do this when the rains come.”

Many already had made such adjustments prior to the latest drought rolling around, and although they’re finding it a challenge to reduce their water consumption further, they express a willingness to try. Others express frustration over decisions they say have exacerbated what one North Coast rancher called a “manufactured drought.”

Some blame the Army Corps of Engineers for failing to raise Coyote Dam at Lake Mendocino as plans called for in the 1950s to help with storage, or for releasing water in the winter to reduce the risk of flooding, a policy some view as outdated given current circumstances.

Others blame grape growers for diverting too much water from the Russian River. In June, an appellate court upheld state rules regulating how hundreds of farmers in Sonoma and Mendocino counties can take water from the river to ward off frost. State regulators created the rules to prevent endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead trout from becoming stranded and dying when farmers pump water from the river.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar, however, credited growers for becoming much more sophisticated about how they conserve water in response to drought conditions.

“It really was a wake-up call for a lot of producers,” Linegar said. “It caused people to take a close look at their water infrastructure.”

Linegar said the drought of 2013-14 has been just as hard on growers and ranchers as the drought of the mid-1970s. He said the only reason the government hasn’t had to step in to haul water this summer is because there are more companies now to handle that need.

He said growers also were fortunate that this year’s frost season was mild.

“We were very, very fortunate that we didn’t have a difficult frost season,” Linegar said. “I think growers only had to turn on the water once or twice.”

Mark Houser, vineyard manager at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards and Alexander Valley Vineyards in Sonoma County, predicted in May after the state curtailed his water rights that his reservoir would run dry by mid-summer and that he would have to discontinue irrigating 300 acres of vines. But he said more recently that he was able to avoid that outcome because he still had access to well water and because he expanded his use of water conservation methods.

“We’re just kind of going along and trying to be as frugal as possible with water,” Houser said.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign legislation that for the first time would regulate pumping of groundwater in California. The new law requires local governments to develop groundwater-management plans and allows the state to intervene if necessary.

Peter Bradford, a Mendocino County cattle rancher and California Farm Bureau director for Lake and Mendocino counties, said he agreed that curtailments on the Russian River were warranted this summer because “a lot of people are in dire need of water.” Like many North Coast ranchers, Bradford has had to thin his herd and purchase supplemental feed, which cuts into his profits at a time where beef prices are at historic highs.

“It may drop down to where it’s no income at all,” he said.

He said he also worries the state will keep water restrictions in place even after rains start to fall.

“When water starts falling from the sky, the state better allow us to store some of that water,” he said.

Urban dwellers have different considerations.

At his spacious Santa Rosa home overlooking Fountaingrove Golf Course, retired corporate executive Mike Gunn outlined some of the ways he and his family have cut back on their water use, including using drip systems for irrigation. But he also acknowledged the incongruity of being able to look down from his second-story deck at a fairway that remains abundantly green.

“Look at that guy out there talking on his cellphone, smoking a cigar,” Gunn said. “Would it change his life if the fairway was brown?”

But Gunn said his support for the golf course turning brown would diminish if he thought his property values would be affected.

“I wouldn’t want anything to reduce my house value,” he said.

Two doors down from Gunn, Harry and Sherree Fogel, who are both real estate agents, were letting their lawn die in preparation for replacing it with something less water-intensive.

“When people look at our lawn, they say, ‘That’s chic. You’re doing what we all should be doing,’” Sherree Fogel said. “Yes, I’m taking this seriously.”

However, the couple’s choice was not one they said they would recommend to their clients.

“If I was selling my house, I wouldn’t do it, and I wouldn’t advise my clients to do it,” Sherree Fogel said.

Fountaingrove Golf Course is irrigated with water from three wells. The course also employs a range of strategies to conserve water, including watering at night and monitoring use with the aid of weather stations, according to Luke Bennett, the course superintendent.

He said players would continue to play at Fountaingrove on a brown surface, noting that some courses around the country are swapping out turf with more drought-tolerant strains that don’t result in the same lushness as what they replaced. But he said it would be cost-prohibitive for Fountaingrove to do the same.

“Once you lose the turf, you have to put a lot of resources into regenerating it,” he said.

He also made the case that the course has a certain image to maintain in the “high-class neighborhood” in which it is situated.

“Ultimately, it’s a feature of this town, and a feature of this neighborhood,” he said.

He said the only concerns he’s taken are from people wondering why the course is being watered during the day, something Bennett said happens infrequently to soak in fertilizer.

Still, the green golf course can be a jarring sight in what ostensibly is a historic drought. Such examples abound on the North Coast.

At Clover Springs in Cloverdale, numerous homeowners have let their lawns die. But outside the 6,200-square-foot Fire Creek Lodge, the community’s gathering hub, lush green grass continues to grow and the swimming pool offers refreshment from the summer heat.

Susan Wattell, manager of the Clover Springs Community Association, said the group is prevented from taking action against homeowners who let their lawns die after Gov. Brown in July signed a law banning homeowners associations from fining residents who fail to water their lawns during droughts.

“We’re encouraging homeowners to keep their yards looking as best as they can, but we cannot tell them to water,” she said.

At the same time, she defended maintaining the green lawn around the lodge, saying the center has met the city’s request for water users to reduce consumption by 25 percent. A sign on the center’s front door noted the facility’s compliance.

The homeowners association, in the meantime, has assigned a committee to recommend new standards for what can be used in lieu of grass outside homes, including restrictions on the amount of rock and other hard material, according to Wattell.

Julius, whose brown lawn is situated across the street from the lodge, said there’s not much more she could do to conserve water other than to stop taking showers or washing clothes. Still, she said she’s fine with the homeowners association continuing to water the grass around the lodge so long as the group is meeting city mandates.

Elsewhere, people have been complaining loudly about perceived water hogs. Santa Rosa residents, for instance, have been burning up the city’s hotline to report water abusers. City crews patrol weekday mornings looking for scofflaws.

At the same time, many city parks appear as green as if the drought never happened.

Santa Rosa Parks Superintendent Lisa Grant said athletic fields need to be maintained for player safety, and that her department has reduced water use by the requested 20 percent.

“We’re not overwatering. We’re in compliance with the irrigation hours and we’re not washing hardscape unless it is for safety or sanitation reasons,” Grant said.

But she conceded that the practice could be sending a mixed message in a city where many residents are taking advantage of a “cash for grass” program in exchange for replacing their lawns.

“Yes, our parks are green. Believe it or not, they almost seem lush,” Grant said in late August. “It’s difficult to reprogram them (sprinkler systems) every time the weather gets cooler.”

City parks in Healdsburg also are being maintained. Licea, the parks superintendent, said crews have made adjustments to deal with drought conditions. He said that includes mulching landscaped areas, mowing lawns higher and reducing irrigation at athletic fields to three times a week, and watering at night to reduce evaporation.

Still, gorgeous lawns and gardens still grace homes on Mathieson Street, one of Healdsburg’s most desirable addresses, as well as outside many homes across town.

Zach Hayman answered the door at his University Avenue home at about 4:30 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon as automatic sprinklers soaked his front yard, the mist shimmering in the afternoon sun.

Hayman said he had been planning to reset the timers on the sprinklers after the power had gone out at his house but that he hadn’t gotten around to it. He wasn’t planning to stop watering altogether, though, saying he felt obligated to keep his lawn looking good in order to abide by community standards.

“It’s not a straightforward issue,” he said of the drought. “There aren’t many people, outside of government or politics, who have a handle on it.”

But Bodensteiner in Willits expressed no doubts whether the many sacrifices he’s made, including flushing his toilet only twice a day, are necessary or required.

“They cannot give you what they don’t have,” he said of water managers. “It’s just going to be a way of life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek. moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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