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Gov. Newsom declares drought emergency for Sonoma, Mendocino counties in visit to Lake Mendocino

Grim outlook for North Bay water supplies

Storage as of April 21 and capacity for this time of year

Lake Sonoma: 152,474 acre feet (about 62%)

Lake Mendocino: 36,740 acre feet (about 44%)

Annual rainfall Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 at Sonoma County airport

2019-20: 19.35 inches

2020-21: 12.77 inches (year to date)

Historic average: 32.26 inches

Source: Sonoma Water

With the cracked, parched bed of Lake Mendocino at his feet, Gov. Gavin Newsom proclaimed a local drought emergency in Mendocino and Sonoma counties on Wednesday, saying the region stood apart from the rest of California due to “acute and dramatic” water-supply woes heading into the driest months of the year.

The declaration marks the most formal step so far in addressing what’s now the second straight year of extremely low rainfall, resulting in record-low levels at this time of year in both Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. Together, the reservoirs supply drinking and irrigation water to three counties and more than 600,000 North Bay residents.

“This is without precedent,” Newsom said at a news conference on the dusty lake bottom. He noted that where he stood should have been 40 feet of water. Instead, it was in bright, glaring sunshine.

The executive order and drought emergency he signed on that spot is not immediately accompanied by any mandates. But those could be forthcoming as conditions evolve, Newsom signaled.

“I want to be clear, we are gaming everything out,” he said.

More counties are likely to be added to the list with Sonoma and Mendocino, as California braces for its first statewide drought under Newsom and its second since the five-year drought under his predecessor, Jerry Brown.

It is up to the governor to proclaim a statewide drought, and though Newsom stopped short of that move Wednesday, he noted that his announcement outside Ukiah had parallels with orders that Brown had given in early 2013 when similar conditions existed.

Climate change is a driving factor, he said.

“The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier,” he said. “We need to disenthrall ourselves with old ways of managing water supply and distribution.”

His order was intended to make the state and local agencies more nimble as the drought deepens and new conservation measures and tools are needed, he said. It also is aimed to speed funding for water management, conservation and habitat protection efforts.

“The targeted emergency proclamation today will give our state agencies the tools needed to take fairly drastic actions to preserve water for the use of communities and for health and safety purposes,” said Wade Crowfoot, secretary of the state Natural Resources Department. “And specifically, our state Water Resources Control Board has the potential through this executive order to potentially curtail water rights that would normally legally entitle water users to divert from the system. That’s an important power that needs to be used very judiciously.”

In the Russian River basin that feeds into Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, about 780 entities, including small water districts, vineyards, orchards and other users already have been notified their ability to withdraw water may be reduced or cut off this year, according to the state water board.

Newsom said he would rely on drought advisers who have stayed on from the Brown administration as well as what other states are doing to confront similar conditions across the American West.

Drought conditions as of April 20, 2021(courtesy of NIDIS / Drought.gov)
Drought conditions as of April 20, 2021(courtesy of NIDIS / Drought.gov)

But he said his actions in California would take the drought region by region, given complex water systems that in some places rely heavily on snow pack, or on sprawling water systems like those that run through the Central Valley and to cities in Southern California.

The Russian River system is of particular concern at this point, Crowfoot said, because it is not connected to wider state and federal networks and does not benefit from snowmelt.

Though connected through the Potter Valley Power Plant to the Eel River and two reservoirs there, the Russian River watershed “really relies on precipitation falling in this watershed,” Crowfoot said.

“Lake Mendocino,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, “is the canary in the coal mine with regard to California’s drought.”

Some degree of drought is present throughout California, Newsom acknowledged though he hedged when he was asked where conditions were worse, noting that such calls can be political. Varying circumstances across the state do not warrant “a one-size fits all” approach, he said.

“We are taking a sequential approach. We are taking a targeted approach, and we are taking an approach based on actual conditions on the ground,” he said.

Those include 2-year rainfall totals in Santa Rosa that are about half what they should be and in Ukiah are comparatively lower, leaving Lake Mendocino at less than 44% of its storage capacity. Lake Sonoma is at about 62%.

Grim outlook for North Bay water supplies

Storage as of April 21 and capacity for this time of year

Lake Sonoma: 152,474 acre feet (about 62%)

Lake Mendocino: 36,740 acre feet (about 44%)

Annual rainfall Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 at Sonoma County airport

2019-20: 19.35 inches

2020-21: 12.77 inches (year to date)

Historic average: 32.26 inches

Source: Sonoma Water

Lake Mendocino’s smaller size means it holds less water even in a normal year and the deep layer of accumulated silt below the water line means that it has even less to offer than would seem this year. That is a worry for downstream rural customers and agricultural users between Ukiah and Healdsburg.

Releases from the lake also sustain flows for imperiled salmon and steelhead trout. But even those flows have been reduced under permission from state authorities.

Lake Mendocino has been the focus of a pioneering effort to hold back more wintertime supplies through the use of advanced forecasting technology that helps dam managers more precisely tailor releases ahead of the region’s biggest storms, the remaining supply is likely insufficient to last through the year, said Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water, the county water agency.

“With no additional rain and continued consumption from water users downstream, we anticipate the very real possibility of not being able to release water from this reservoir by fall,” Davis said.

The combined Russian River system managed by Sonoma Water serves about 600,000 urban water users in Sonoma County and northern Marin County, in addition to thousands of rural consumers along the river stem and in Mendocino County. There is likely to be increased demand from otherwise independent consumers, as well, given dry irrigation and storage ponds around the region.

Some dairy farmers in southern Sonoma County already are trucking water from the city of Petaluma to parched lands to water livestock, for instance, while city of Santa Rosa, which normally provides about 1.7 billion gallons of recycled water to rural land owners for irrigation purposes each year, has about 600 million gallons to offer this year.

Mendocino County supervisors on Tuesday declared a local emergency and “imminent threat of disaster due to drought” in response to recent conditions, while Marin Water has adopted new water use restrictions that include prohibitions on landscape watering between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., washing vehicles at home, power washing homes and business, washing driveways or sidewalks and other measures.

Sonoma County officials have not declared a drought emergency.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

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. 

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