800 yards from the south parking lot, from left, Manny Miramontes, Adam Kile tour the lake bed of Lake Mendocino, Thursday Feb. 6, 2014 in Ukiah. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2014

Bill by Jared Huffman aims to keep more water in reservoirs

In a move designed to preserve water in Lake Mendocino and other reservoirs that provide a crucial source of water, especially during droughts, North Coast Rep. Jared Huffman has introduced legislation to update rules governing the release of water during the winter rainy season.

The legislation, introduced this week, would make it easier for local agencies to seek reductions in winter water releases from reservoirs operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Critics say the Corps follows outdated rules that were responsible for unnecessary water releases from Lake Mendocino last winter. The releases, designed to minimize the threat of flooding, have exacerbated this year's water shortage.

Local water officials who have been lobbying for changes in the Corps' water release rules were thrilled by the news.

"I can't tell you how happy I am to see a member of Congress act," said Sean White, director of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, which holds the rights to 8,000 acre-feet of water in Lake Mendocino.

"To be stuck with a rule curve that was developed before the advent of computers and satellite-based forecasting in the year 2014 is nothing short of ridiculous," he said.

The Corps' Lake Mendocino manual currently dictates maximum lake levels on specific dates, even when there's no rain in the immediate future. The rules are aimed at preventing floods and the harm they can cause.

But strictly following the rules can have serious consequences in years with little rainfall.

The Corps has been criticized for releasing large amounts of water from Lake Mendocino during the last major storm of 2013.

Local water officials estimate the reservoir would contain an additional 24,000 acre-feet of water - about 7.8 billion gallons - had the Corps based its January 2013 releases on long-range weather forecasts instead of a chart created in the 1950s.

The region has not had major rainfall since a storm in January 2013. Since then, water levels have steadily declined in Lake Mendocino and it now has the lowest water level ever recorded in winter.

Farmers and residents along the Russian River between Redwood Valley and Healdsburg, who rely on water from Lake Mendocino, face a dire situation. Last week, the state Department of Public Health warned that Healdsburg and Cloverdale are in danger of running out of water in 60 to 120 days. Willits, which has its own water supply, is also at risk, state officials said.

Healdsburg officials said the state assessment was inaccurate. City wells in the Dry Creek Valley, which are recharged with water from Lake Sonoma, will ensure Healdsburg has sufficient water to meet demand, city officials said.

The Healdsburg City Council voted to impose a 20 percent mandatory cut in water usage on Jan. 21, including a partial ban on outdoor uses. The next day, Cloverdale voted to impose a 25 percent cut.

Had the water from the last storm of January 2013 been retained in Lake Mendocino, there would be almost twice as much water in the lake, which contained 24,525 acre-feet of water Thursday afternoon.

Huffman's legislation, which he dubbed the Forecast Act, calls for increasing the use of weather forecasting and atmospheric science when determining water releases.

"It's time we started using modern science and weather forecasting, and the Forecast Act will be a critical move towards improving our resource operations and reducing wastage," the San Rafael Democrat said in a statement.

Huffman was travelling Thursday and unavailable for comment, staff said.

Mike Dillabough, chief of the Operations and Readiness Division for the Army Corps' San Francisco District, said he has not yet seen the bill and declined to comment.

Corps officials earlier said they are willing to make changes, but their primary goals are flood prevention and public safety.

Currently, weather forecasts are not foolproof and the Corps is required to err on the side of caution to prevent water from breaching dams, officials said. Under a worst-case scenario, 250,000 people between the Lake Mendocino and Jenner could be adversely affected by flooding if the dam at the lake fails completely, Dillabough said in a January interview.

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