Lower flows in Russian River sought to protect supply in Lake Mendocino

  • Lake Mendocino (PD FILE, 2014)

Desperate to save plummeting water reserves in Lake Mendocino, a Mendocino County water agency is lobbying the state to dramatically reduce the amount that must be released downstream into the Russian River for fish and people.

Without a change to the current release schedule, and barring a wet fall, the reservoir is set to be nearly dry by the end of the year, Mendocino County water officials said.

“We want to make sure we take every action possible to avoid an impending disaster,” said Sean White, director of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, which is seeking the change. The district holds Mendocino County’s right to 8,000 acre-feet of water in the lake.

Officials with the state Water Resources Control Board said Thursday they are considering the request.

It comes as Lake Mendocino — the largest reservoir on the upper Russian River and a major summer source of water for fish, residents and farmers along the section of river north of Healdsburg — is at less than 38 percent of capacity, or 42,000 acre-feet. Mandated releases, largely for fish, are causing the lake to lose about 200 acre-feet a day.

Mendocino officials are hoping to reduce that amount by cutting the downstream releases by two-thirds, from 75 cubic feet per second to 25 cubic feet per second at a measuring point near Healdsburg. The amount of water saved under such a change would be roughly 100 acre-feet a day, enough to supply 300 families for a year, White said.

“It’s not good for anybody to run out of water — fish or people,” he said, adding that keeping more water in the reservoir also would help fish later in the year.

The district is aiming to protect its supply for customers in the Ukiah and Hopland valleys.

The request to the state is to change its designated water supply conditions for Lake Mendocino, which now is being managed for a “dry year.” The Russian River water district wants the designation changed to a “critically dry year.” A similar temporary change was granted by the state in 2009.

The request comes amid a now extended drought that has imperiled water supplies throughout the state, prompting mandatory cuts for farmers and urban customers and spurring water managers to conserve the dwindling reserves they now have behind dams and in streams.

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