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