Sonoma Water drought town hall intended as ‘huge reality check’
As the region endures a third year of drought, water systems that have been heavily taxed for two years are in critical shape after a dry winter, with the warm, rainless summer months coming up.
Against that backdrop, organizers of a Drought Town Hall hosted by Sonoma Water on Thursday are hoping to attract the widest possible audience for what the agency’s assistant general manager describes as a “huge reality check.”
The virtual meeting will offer a chance for residents to hear about the status of reservoirs, groundwater, surface streams and rivers. They’ll also learn about conservation needs and other measures underway and likely up ahead to help us through to the next wet season.
Speaker include representatives from state water agencies, agriculture, fisheries and urban water users.
“We want to take the community on this unfortunate drought journey with us, because we’re not going to be able to respond well without the community’s help,” said Brad Sherwood, Sonoma Water’s assistant general manager. “And we most certainly want to raise the flag that there is no forecast ‘March Miracle.’ And that’s a big deal.”
Santa Rosa and neighboring communities have had less than 1 inch of rain since Jan. 1, National Weather Service meteorologist Roger Gass said. Normal in Santa Rosa would be 14.41 inches, he said.
The area still has gotten more precipitation this rainy season, Oct. 1 to Sept. 30, than in each of the last two years. Santa Rosa has received a total 22.22 inches, compared to 19.35 in 2019-20 and 13.01 last season. Normal for this time in the season is 26.41 inches, Gass said.
This season’s rain came early, however, and a lot of it during a single massive storm in October, when the thirsty ground and watersheds were in such desperate need of recovery that the rain only went so far.
Thus, many natural rivers and streams are in worse shape now than a year ago at this time.
Fort Bragg, which acquires its water from the Noyo River and two nearby springs, is measuring flows 30% below last year, when it had to acquire a mobile desalination unit to treat brackish water affected by high tides, city Operations Manager John Smith said.
Tributaries around the region also are at a very low ebb, creating dire conditions for spawning steelhead trout trying to access narrow tributaries to spawn and for threatened, juvenile coho salmon who will be starting out in streams already so low some are starting to disconnect, according to fisheries biologist Mariska Obedzinski, a project manager with the California Sea Grant program and the Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program. Both fish are federally protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Dan Wilson, Operations and Policy Branch Chief for the California Coastal Office of the NOAA Fisheries, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hopes he can use part of Thursday’s town hall to enlist more help for the California Voluntary Drought Initiative.
The joint state-federal project seeks to work with residents and agricultural users in four high-priority watersheds — Mark West Creek, Dutch Bill, Green Valley and Mill Creek — to enhance the survival potential of threatened fish through individual agreements.
Small water users who want to aid the fish agree to release small amounts of water to creeks when the flow reaches a critical threshold, Wilson said. Just a little addition can increase the flow, add oxygen and lower temperatures enough for juvenile fish to survive, he said.
Water users with ponds or wells in those areas also are asked to conserve as much as possible, try to coordinate water diversions with neighbors to have the least impact on the creeks, and even grant access to state and federal personnel to improve access to stranded fish in need of rescue.
“This is an opportunity to really help,” Wilson said.
In the main stem Russian River, flows are also extremely low, though they are so by design, in an effort to keep as much water in storage as possible.
The human-made water system is made up in large part by water from the Eel River that is parked in Lake Pillsbury, then fed into Lake Mendocino and released downstream in the Russian River, where it’s joined by water released into Dry Creek from Lake Sonoma.
As of March 1, releases from both lakes Sonoma and Mendocino have dropped substantially because of a change in the status of Lake Mendocino, which is shifted from “dry” to “critical,” Sonoma Water Principal Engineer Don Seymour said.
The result is minimum water flows in upper river have fallen from 75 cubic feet per second to just 25 cfs under arrangements with state water regulators. Lower river flows are now a minimum 35 cfs, compared to 85 cfs earlier this year.
While Lake Mendocino has holds more water than it did a year ago, it remains at about 61%. Lake Sonoma has better storage than this time last year, though only slightly. It’s at about 60%.
Seymour said the low river flows are expected to last through November. The water agency, which serves more than 600,000 consumers through its urban contractors in northern Marin and Sonoma counties, expects the state to require it to reduce its withdrawals from the river, as was the case last year when the mandate was a 20% reduction.
Individual water right holders along the Russian River, hundreds of whom were told there was not enough water for them to divert water last year, have had relief from those curtailment orders for several months through at least March 15.
A spokeswoman for the Water Rights Division of the State Water Resources Control Board said Monday that curtailments could begin as early as March 16, “but we are updating and observing the next few days, and it looks (like) it might make it to April.”
A representative from the division will be on the panel Thursday.
Sherwood and South County Supervisor David Rabbitt, who will moderate the discussion, said this would be the first of a continuing series of town hall meetings intended to keep the public apprised of developments, as well as highlighting different issues and subject areas.
But the initial meeting, Rabbitt said, is an effort at “getting out ahead and making sure we let people know” about the dismal outlook for water supply.
There will nonetheless be reports on some projects in the works and funding opportunities for additional drought-mitigation and long-term storage projects.
“I still think there’s a lot of good stuff, proactive things happening,” Rabbitt said, “and we just need to communicate it more often and better.”
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.
Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat
I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment.