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North Bay braces for water cuts with reservoirs at record lows after second dry winter

Grim outlook for North Bay water supplies

Storage as of April 1 and capacity for this time of year

Lake Sonoma: 154.361 acre feet (about 63%)

Lake Mendocino: 36,207 acre feet (about 45%)

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

Anyone paying attention to the season’s paltry rainfall has seen it coming for some time, but recent pronouncements about the state of the region’s water supply make it plain: hard times lie ahead.

Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino are both at their lowest levels ever for this time of year — after two consecutive years in which the combined rainfall totals barely measure up to a single average year.

State water regulators have issued letters notifying more than 700 vineyards, domestic suppliers, farmers and other entities with water rights for the Russian River that their diversions may be curtailed.

Dairy farmers in southern Sonoma County already are trucking thousands of gallons a day to their parched lands, and more than a billion gallons of recycled wastewater normally delivered each year to other agricultural users is simply unavailable, owing to low rainfall and diminished production.

And though it’s only the beginning of April, with months still to go before summer even starts, officials say the overall picture suggests mandated conservation measures aren’t so much a matter of if, but when.

“Just based on how low our reservoirs are, and based on past droughts, I would say the writing is on the wall,” said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for Sonoma Water, the region’s leading wholesaler and provider of water to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

Only four years have passed since then-Gov. Jerry Brown declared California’s last, five-year drought over, but the days of keeping buckets in showers and letting lawns die seem long ago, so much has happened since. (For instance, wildfire — Tubbs, Nuns, Kincade, Walbridge, Glass; the 2019 flood; the COVID-19 pandemic; social upheaval; political turmoil.)

Nonetheless, local residents are being called upon to renew the water-saving measures they utilized then, given an outlook even worse than when Brown ordered the entire state to cut water use by 25%. A similar drought call could be in the offing for Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The reason for local concern? Though storage in lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, the region’s two main public reservoirs, has been lower before, they have never held so little this early in the year. The entirety of the heavy water-use summer season is still to come and so many months to go before the prospect of any significant rainfall next winter.

“Saving water is a way of life, and it has to be built into our everyday consciousness,” said Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water. But “two dry years, this dry is very unprecedented, and we’re now at the tail end of the rainy season.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, the board chair, said residents need to prioritize water for drinking and sanitation. A newsletter from her fifth district office said water managers were advising local communities to conserve 30% to 50% to get through October.

“In my opinion, if it’s not something you’re going eat, maybe you shouldn’t be watering it,” Hopkins said. “I know people are really passionate about their landscaping, but when you think about reduced water supply, that’s obviously the low-hanging fruit.”

But Russian Riverkeeper Don McEnhill said water officials from the local level to the state have missed the boat on conservation efforts that could have made a difference starting last year, had public messaging been more urgent in its tone.

“We’re sleepwalking into another drought, once again,” he said. “We failed to conserve, and we’re in a world of hurt because we keep forgetting that drought makes us run out of water.”

Conservation mandates should have begun last year, he said, after local rainfall from Oct. 1, 2019, to Sept. 30, 2020, measured only 19.35 inches — compared to an annual average of 32.26 inches at the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.

This year, the airport has received only 12.77 inches of rain since Oct. 1. Too few people appreciate how severe the shortage is, McEnhill said.

Supply-wise, “we’re where we usually are, in a bad year, in November and December, and we’re staring at a dry season (ahead) instead of looking at it in our rearview mirror,” McEnhill said. “The sky is falling, and it’s the best kept secret in the watershed.”

As of this week, Lake Mendocino, northeast of Ukiah, held about 36,000 acre feet of water, or about 45.4% of its supply target — the lowest level at this time of year since it was dammed and filled in 1958, according to Sonoma Water.

Lake Sonoma, the larger of the two reservoirs, built through the damming of upper Dry Creek in 1983, is in better shape.

Grim outlook for North Bay water supplies

Storage as of April 1 and capacity for this time of year

Lake Sonoma: 154.361 acre feet (about 63%)

Lake Mendocino: 36,207 acre feet (about 45%)

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

At about 63% full, it’s storing 155,000 acre feet. Its lowest level ever was 120,888 acre feet at the end of November 1987.

The margins are tighter for Lake Mendocino, which supports water customers on the outskirts of Ukiah and others along the upper Russian River stretching south to Healdsburg, including vineyards, pear farms and other agricultural users.

The buildup of silt over decades means the reservoir has far less storage capacity than it once did, leaving a balance in it current supply that is far less than what is drawn down in a typical year between March and Nov. 1 for consumer and agricultural water needs and minimum instream-flows required for fisheries, water officials said. The deficit is about 9,000 acre feet. (An acre foot is enough water to cover most of a football field 1 foot deep.)

Up to 1,000 acre feet a month also will be lost to evaporation, according to Elizabeth Salomone, general manager of the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control & Water Conservation Improvement District.

“We’re going into uncharted territory,” Salomone said. “We don’t know what the level is really, given the silt.”

The district, a wholesaler to small local agencies on the outskirts of Ukiah and agricultural users, is among many water right holders along the Russian River corridor notified in March by the state that their privileges could be limited this year.

“I believe the state is going to make a move very soon,” Salomone said.

To the south, at Lake Sonoma, water released downstream through Dry Creek into the Russian River near Healdsburg serves as the primary source of water for consumers from Windsor south to Novato.

Davis said Sonoma Water would be establishing a guide curve and tracking water use to ensure “we make it through the year in good condition” and also “are prepared, if in fact, we don’t get rain the following year, for a third year.”

Public officials pledged during the last drought to be more prepared in the future for multiyear dry spells, as climate change exacerbated extremes in weather behavior.

They have updated winter management of Lake Mendocino, where water managers and researchers over recent years have developed forecasting tools that help prevent unnecessary releases from the reservoir when no moisture-rich atmospheric rivers are on the horizon.

The more flexible model allowed for the storage of an extra 11,000 acre feet of water in 2020 – almost a third of what’s behind the dam right now, Sonoma Water said.

The agency also successfully petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board early last year for emergency permission to reduce instream river flows below the minimum required, saving an additional 10,000 acre feet in storage last year.

In January this year, permission was granted again to reduce flows in the upper river for 180 days, between Lake Mendocino and Healdsburg. Davis said the water agency expected follow up in a month or six weeks with a third such petition, seeking reduced flow for the entire main stem, to preserve water in Lake Sonoma.

Sherwood pointed to public advertising, social media posts and web postings alerting residents to last year’s low rainfall, as well as providing conservation tips.

But, like Davis, Hopkins conceded the wildfires and COVID-19 pandemic have consumed a lot of oxygen, while water managers have hoped that March might bring the kind of “March miracle” that has bolstered water supplies in years past.

Household water use in Sonoma and northern Marin counties came in last year at 113 gallons a day, below the state target of 129 gallons. Still, that average figure from last year was up from 101 gallons per day across the region in 2016. In Santa Rosa, consumers last year averaged 99 gallons per capita per day, up from 86 in 2016.

Such records offer little consolation to folks like Don Debernardi, 83, who started his dairy near Two Rock almost 55 years ago. Soon his family’s new tractor truck will be hauling tankers of water each day to water their 700 milk cows.

They’ll be joining neighbors in the Petaluma Dairy Belt already hauling thousands of gallons of waters each day to ranches that usually provide their own water through creeks and private reservoirs.

“I haven’t seen it like this,” DeBernardi said. “There’s no groundwater, so most people — even some of the residential people out here — are starting to haul water. Their wells are almost dry.”

Neil McIsaac, another dairy farmer, said his son already makes two trips a night bring back water to about 325 dairy cows. He sleeps a few hours and then gets up to feed the livestock.

And aside from the extra work and expenses, said McIsaac, 73, without water, there will be less milk — Sonoma County’s second large agricultural product, worth about $127 million in 2019.

“It’s still a very viable industry.” McIsaac said, “but it’s going to be history if we have much of this.”

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that advice about conservation goals of 30-to-50% were provided by Supervisor Lynda Hopkins’ district newsletter.

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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