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New Russian River curtailments imposed as Sonoma County officials warn of worsening drought

Several hundred ranchers, grape growers, tribes, landowners and community water suppliers, including the city of Healdsburg, were barred Friday from exercising some of their rights to water from the Russian River amid tightening supplies in an unrelenting drought officials say is likely to get worse.

The third round of curtailments imposed by the State Water Resource Control Board was prompted by drastic reductions in Eel River water diversions, which are critical to boosting diminishing storage in Lake Mendocino, which in turn feeds the Russian River.

The water board also formally suspended a new voluntary sharing arrangement that allowed some of those with older, “senior” water rights to share water with those whose rights have been curtailed. According to state water officials, there is no longer enough water available to make the system work.

During a virtual town hall on the drought hosted by Sonoma County on Thursday, local officials underscored the grim possibility that current circumstances could, in retrospect, practically look like the good ol’ days by next year.

“The bottom line, up front and again, is we need to continue conserving water,” said Supervisor James Gore, chairman of the Board of Supervisors. “ … Water saved now is water we can use later.”

Climate indications signal that another dry winter may lie ahead, at least until January, adding urgency to the need to conserve and prepare for what Sonoma County Emergency Management Director Christopher Godley described as “a very slowly unfolding but very significant disaster for our county.”

“We think there’s a good chance that this multiyear drought we’re in will extend now into 2023,” Godley said, “and of course every year gets worse than the one before, and so next year we could have more significant impacts than the ones we’re currently facing.”

With total rainfall over three years of drought already short about one whole winter’s worth, the region already has a deficit from which it will take years to recover, he said.

Groundwater aquifers need to recharge, storage reservoirs and natural water bodies need to replenish, and drought-stricken vegetation needs time to recover.

Individual wells and water supplies also are expected to be at greater risk of failing without significant rain, Godley said, despite what’s so far been a relatively mild summer.

A county drought task force, whose members represent local cities, water districts, groundwater sustainability districts, resource agencies and others, is being doubled in size this month, Godley said.

It’s also expected to take on a more operational posture, ensuring contingency plans are in place for large and small water systems and developing risk and assessments and long-term plans to ensure drinking water solutions are identified in the event of long-term drought and failed systems.

That includes identifying resources, like grant opportunities through state and federal agencies, Godley said.

“We think there’s going to be a need to really bring more solutions to folks that are suffering from drought, especially as we start to see water systems and wells impacted,” he said.

A task force that has mostly been working to understand the scope of the problem will need to take action, he said.

In the meantime, Lake Mendocino’s storage level has dropped by about 1,000 acre feet, or 2%, over the past week, thanks to reduced flows from the Eel River through Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s disabled Potter Valley power plant, which discharges water into the East Fork Russian River and on into the reservoir near Ukiah.

Philip Dutton, senior engineer with the state water board’s Division of Water Rights, said diversions had dropped from 75 or 80 cubic feet per second to 5 cfs under authorization federal regulators granted to PG&E last week to help preserve Eel River water storage in Lake Pillsbury.

The state board previously curtailed rights for 260 users and reduced rights for 326 others. It now has curtailed rights for 671 users, about two thirds of them in the upper river watershed upstream of Healdsburg and Dry Creek, where releases from Lake Sonoma supplement river flows.

Some water right holders have multiple claims. So, though nearly 1,000 water rights are restricted, fewer entities are affected.

Healdsburg, for instance, holds six water rights, all but one of them curtailed, setting the community up for significant conservation demands, as was the case last year, as well.

The city has some recent good news, however, in the award of a more than $6 million federal grant through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program to apply toward an estimated $8.6 million aquifer recharge and well recovery project aimed at increasing city water supply by perhaps 60 million gallons a year.

The project still requires exploratory drilling but offers hope of using at least one of three prospective city-owned sites to drill very deep wells for injection of water to be banked underground when it is plentiful, said Patrick Fuss, principal engineer for the city of Healdsburg.

“The city’s water supply right now is solely from surface water,” subject to curtailment during dry summers, Fuss said.

Completed, the new project “would be a big improvement, given our situation,” he said.

In the meantime, Windsor is providing all Sonoma County residents access to the fill station through which its citizens can obtain up to 300 gallons of free, recycled wastewater a trip for use in outdoor irrigation.

There’s paperwork involved and limitations on how the water’s used — no bathing, drinking or cooking with it, for example — but it’s one way to keep plants alive without using potable water that urgently needs to be conserved, officials said.

More information is available at townofwindsor.com/1380/Residential-Fill-Station-Program.

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

City/Water District Gallons Per Person Per Day Consumed in June 2022 Percent change in July 2021-June 2022 compared to 2020
Cloverdale 85.36 — 24.1%
Healdsburg 99.15 — 36.6%
North Marin Water District 88.84 — 21.4%
Petaluma 67.68 — 21.9%
Rohnert Park 67.33 — 2%
Santa Rosa 71.70 — 15.5%
Sonoma 128.63 — 19.2%
Valley of the Moon Water District 46.29 — 16%
Windsor 79.27 — 22.6%
June 2022 water use/conservation figures (as reported by the State Water Resources Control Board

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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