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.
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