Sonoma County ranchers, water managers welcome rain but caution that California drought persists
West Sonoma County livestock rancher Joe Pozzi loves the bright green grass sprouting on the 1,200 acres he grazes sheep and cattle in the wake of two unseasonably large storms since the water year began last month.
They dropped more water on the region in a span of three weeks than all rainfall recorded at the county airport over the past year — the second in a severe statewide drought.
“It’s a huge turnaround from what we’ve seen the past couple of years,” Pozzi said Tuesday at his Valley Ford ranch.
The mix of wet and warm weather is “a great start,” he said, noting the three wettest months — December through February — lie ahead as potential drought busters.
While city dwellers relish the emerald landscape, for ranchers it represents another type of green: The money saved as nature offsets the need to buy hay to nurture their herds.
City and county water managers also are pleased to see rising levels in the area’s two major reservoirs — Lake Sonoma west of Healdsburg and Lake Mendocino near Ukiah.
“This is an important start,” said Don Seymour, principal engineer with Sonoma Water, the county agency that delivers Russian River water to more than 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents.
But electronic highway signs are still urging water savings and all of Sonoma County remained in extreme drought, the third highest of four levels, in last week’s federal Drought Monitor.
With a total of 13.64 inches of precipitation through 4 p.m. Tuesday in Santa Rosa since the water year began Oct. 1, the ground is saturated and rain quickly runs off into streams, rivers and reservoirs, Seymour said.
That total is 550% of the average for this time of year, 2.48 inches, in Santa Rosa, the National Weather Service said.
It’s already more than the total Santa Rosa rainfall in 2020-21 of 13.01 inches and closing in on the 19.35 inches in 2019-20.
The latest storm overnight Monday into Tuesday dropped an additional 1.91 inches at the Sonoma County Airport, while nearly 4 inches fell in the wettest parts of the county in the hills west of Healdsburg.
There have been 19 rainy days in Santa Rosa since Oct. 1, the National Weather Service said.
Lake Mendocino has risen nine feet — gaining 6,500 acre feet of water — since before the epic rainfall on Oct. 24. On Tuesday, following last weekend’s lesser storm, the reservoir held about 19,000 acre feet, still just 28% full and at its lowest level since November 1977.
The reservoir’s wintertime water limit is 68,400 acre feet, with an allowance for an additional 11,000 acre feet if no major storms, known as atmospheric rivers, are imminent, Seymour said.
Lake Sonoma, a far larger reservoir behind a 319-foot dam on two remote creeks, has gained 16,000 acre feet of water, reaching 121,000 acre feet and is 49% full, he said.
Before the October storm, it had dwindled to 105,000 acre feet, the lowest level since it filled in 1986.
An acre foot is equal to about 326,000 gallons, or the amount of water that would flood most of a football field one foot deep.
The Oct. 24 megastorm dropped 7.83 inches of rain on Santa Rosa, the most by far for any date, and Venado, the county’s rain capital in the hills west of Healdsburg, recorded a 14.26-inch drenching.
“That big event did it. It just really kick started the system,” Seymour said, noting that it saturated the soil throughout the Russian River watershed, facilitating runoff into the area’s waterways.
But no matter how much water the reservoirs impound, large parts of the county — including most rural residents — depend on groundwater, and it takes varying amounts of time for rainfall to recharge an aquifer, he said.
“We’re absolutely still in a drought,” Seymour said.
Santa Rosa, the largest consumer of Russian River water, is not letting up on its call for consumers to use 20% less water than they did last year.
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” said Peter Martin, deputy director of water resources for Santa Rosa Water.
“Until we recover a substantial amount of (water) storage, we’re going to ask our customers to save everything they can,” he said.
With the recent rains having eliminated outdoor irrigation, the city’s campaign is focused on curbing indoor water consumption by such steps as repairing water leaks, taking shorter showers and investments in rain water capture and use of gray water, Martin said.
Sonoma Water, likewise, is pushing its water contractors to meet the 20% cutback, Seymour said.
“We’re still pushing the message that we need to continue the conservation effort,” he said. “I hope everybody’s turned off their irrigation system.”
The expectation of a La Niña winter in California, potentially bringing drier than usual weather, doesn’t mean much here, Seymour said, because the Bay Area is on the borderline of the phenomenon’s impact.
“It’s 50-50 whether we’re in drought or a normal rain year,” he said, regarding La Niña.
The latest 10- to 14-day forecast by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center calls for “near normal” precipitation.
The weather service’s latest Santa Rosa forecast calls for patchy fog Wednesday morning, turning to sunshine and a high near 66, with a mix of fog and sunshine and temperatures in the low 70s through the weekend.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or email@example.com. On Twitter @guykovner.