Rural residents decry water restrictions at Occidental meeting

A feisty crowd of west county residents at a Monday meeting wanted to know why new water conservation rules aimed at saving endangered fish do not apply to vineyards.|

A feisty crowd of west county residents peppered state regulators Monday night with questions about why new water conservation rules aimed at saving endangered coho salmon do not apply to vineyards.

The rules, which took effect Monday, apply to the owners of about 3,750 parcels that rely primarily on private wells in four watersheds, including the areas around Dutch Bill and Green Valley creeks in west county.

'It's so obvious who's sucking the water out of the ground,' shouted one man in an audience of about 100 residents, asserting that there are dozens of vineyards in the Green Valley watershed.

Another man said the rural water-conservation measures approved by the state Water Resources Control Board last month are 'doomed to fail because the main culprits are not included.'

'We're dealing with the low-hanging fruit here,' a woman called out, referring to prohibitions on watering lawns and washing vehicles with no limits on irrigation of commercial agriculture.

The meeting at Salmon Creek School near Occidental was the first of five public sessions scheduled by the water board after it officially adopted the emergency regulations on June 17.

State officials said the drought has reduced summer flows in four coho-rearing creeks — including Mark West Creek north of Santa Rosa and Mill Creek west of Healdsburg — by 90 percent or more from 2010 levels.

Gail Seymour, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that 2,800 juvenile fish had been rescued and relocated from the four creeks in May and June.

The crowd applauded a woman who said conditions for the salmon and steelhead were 'critical; it's a tragedy.'

Seymour did not directly answer a man who asked if rural residents conserved water, as required, whether the fish would survive.

'It's been pretty rough,' she said. 'I'm not going to give up hope.'

The meeting got off to a rocky start when the seats in one room at the school filled up with about 100 people, prompting noisy complaints, and state officials quickly made arrangements to do a simultaneous presentation in an adjacent room with about 120 more residents.

Dorene D'Adamo, a water board member, said she understood the sentiment in the first room.

'I hear your frustration,' she said, identifying herself as the board member representing agriculture and a resident of the San Joaquin Valley, where 'we have these conflicts.'

The rural water rules, unique to the four Sonoma County watersheds, are aimed at restricting use of water on 'ornamental turf,' meaning lawns, D'Adamo said, with the intention of avoiding a 'big economic impact.'

If the conservation measures — similar to what city residents statewide have been under for months — don't work, the water board will implement curtailments, which would apply to wineries and vineyards, D'Adamo said.

Curtailments last year suspended water rights for seven months for about 650 permit holders on the Russian River north of its confluence with Dry Creek near Healdsburg, forcing some growers to haul in thousands of gallons of water to irrigate crops.

'We take this conversation very seriously,' D'Adamo told the audience.

Terry Kraus of Occidental said he attended the meeting because the rules represent 'the government's telling you how to live on your own property.' Kraus said it rankled him that a neighbor 'who grows grapes is pretty much exempted' from the rules.

Erin Ragazzi, environmental program manager for the water board, said the agency has received calls from people 'wondering how they can report their neighbor.' There will be an area on the board's website to allow that, she said.

Dan Holtman, an Occidental area resident who lives on Purrington Creek, said that waterway, a tributary of Green Valley Creek, is 'losing water like crazy' while some of his neighbors are 'still watering their lawns with sprinklers.'

There are six-inch juvenile salmon in pools along the creek, he said.

Holtman said he filled a 10,000-gallon storage tank with creek water during the winter and will get by on it with no further diversions this summer. 'I've been doing this for 25 years,' he said.

Mike Loftus of Graton, who also lives along Purrington Creek, said the application of urban water restrictions on rural areas is 'somewhat misplaced.'

Some of the water that rural residents sprinkle on their landscape sinks back 'into the aquifer it came from,' as does household wastewater that flows through a septic system, he said.

None of the water used in cities returns to its source, Loftus said.

The water board will hold four more meetings this week: at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Healdsburg City Council Chambers, 401 Grove St.; at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Forestville Fire Department, 6554 Mirabel Road; and at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Thursday at the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, 5550 Skylane Blvd., Suite A, in Santa Rosa.

A map-based tool for landowners and water users to determine if they are in one of the watersheds is available by clicking here.

Information on the water-use regulations can be obtained by calling 916-322-8422.

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