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The north end of Lake Mendocino near Ukiah is caked in dry, cracked mud as water continues to recede from the lake due to the lack of winter precipitation, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Sonoma County flirts with drought as reservoirs recede in water-poor winter

Weather forecasters blame La Niña; firefighters see new evidence wildfire season never ends

About a mile of bare, cracked earth now lies like a desertscape between the boat ramp at the north end of Lake Mendocino and the water’s edge of a diminished reservoir that helps provide water for 600,000 Sonoma and Marin County residents.

The human-made lake near Ukiah is about 30 feet lower than it was at this time last year, and Nick Malasavage, an Army Corps of Engineers official who oversees operations at the reservoir, said the scene is “pretty jarring.”

Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma is difficult to navigate as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.  During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma is difficult to navigate as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Some 40 miles to the south, skeletal drowned trees protrude from the water at the upper end of the Yorty Creek arm of Lake Sonoma, the cornerstone of the Russian River water system. The lake is about 25 feet lower than last year.

And while the county’s bucolic hills are green from rain, cattle ranchers, dairy operators and wine grape growers say too little has fallen to sustain their crops and livestock.

The Russian River flows into the north end of receding Lake Mendocino, exposing the bottom of the reservoir, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The Russian River flows into the north end of receding Lake Mendocino, exposing the bottom of the reservoir, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Farm reservoirs are low from lack of storm runoff, and some are nearly empty, like the pond at a Korbel Winery vineyard near Guerneville meant to provide water for frost protection and irrigation.

Sonoma County and the surrounding region are flirting with drought in the midst of a water-poor winter attributed to a La Niña weather pattern that threatens the county’s $1 billion farming sector and could fuel more catastrophic fire conditions later this year.

“If we don’t get average rainfall for the next two months we could be in a critically dry year,” said Grant Davis, head of Sonoma Water, the agency that provides water to most of Sonoma County and northern Marin.

During a normal winter, water would be coursing over the spillway as Korbel's John Bidia inspects a nearly dry irrigation and frost protection reservoir at a Korbel vineyard in Guerneville, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
During a normal winter, water would be coursing over the spillway as Korbel's John Bidia inspects a nearly dry irrigation and frost protection reservoir at a Korbel vineyard in Guerneville, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Even that makeup rainfall might not suffice in a year that has delivered just 5.77 inches of precipitation in Santa Rosa since Oct. 1, nearly a foot shy of the 17.5-inch average by this time of the official rain year. The 12-month historical average for the city is over 36 inches.

Petaluma Municipal Airport, at the dry southern end of the county, has just 3.25 inches of rain so far and needs 23.4 inches to reach average by the Sept. 30 end of the rain year, according to the Western Region Climate Center, a federally funded agency.

The likelihood of closing that rain deficit is less than 9%, the center said.

The 19 cities and communities listed on The Press Democrat’s weather page all have less than 10 inches of rain to date and for many it is less than half of last year’s precipitation.

Rancher Joe Pozzi supplements his Angus cattle stock with alfalfa, on leased land in Coleman Valley in December 2020.  Meager winter rains have slowed the growth of pasture grass. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Rancher Joe Pozzi supplements his Angus cattle stock with alfalfa, on leased land in Coleman Valley in December 2020. Meager winter rains have slowed the growth of pasture grass. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Venado, the remote place in the mountains 10 miles west of Healdsburg that is heralded as the county’s soggiest spot and known for 100-inch rain years, has had a mere 12.36 inches since Oct. 1.

While the two reservoirs are rain-deprived — Lake Sonoma at 65% of targeted capacity and Lake Mendocino at 40% — Davis said the water agency would have enough supplies this year for its North Bay customers.

Lake Sonoma, the 2,700-acre reservoir created by the construction of Warm Springs Dam in 1983, can hold a three-year water supply. Lake Mendocino, created behind Coyote Valley Dam in 1958, is about one-third as large and depends more on yearly replenishment from nature.

Liam, 11, and Cameron Earsley, 7, upright a  buoy marker on the dry lakebed at the north end of Lake Mendocino in December 2020.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Liam, 11, and Cameron Earsley, 7, upright a buoy marker on the dry lakebed at the north end of Lake Mendocino in December 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Lake Mendocino is fed by rainfall in the upper Russian River watershed that is measured at Ukiah, where rainfall in 2020 was 11.32 inches — 31% of normal and second lowest since 1893. The lowest mark was 7.6 inches in 2013, at the outset of a historic statewide drought that sapped supplies and forced conservation measures.

To preserve water in Lake Mendocino, Sonoma Water this month has asked state water regulators for temporary permission to cut releases by half or more under certain conditions this year.

A visitor to Lake Sonoma walks along the ever receding reservoir level, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A visitor to Lake Sonoma walks along the ever receding reservoir level, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Firefighters, too, are on edge, with meteorologists warning that the unusually warm and windy weather could spark wildfires. Despite the danger, the weather service was not anticipating issuing a red flag warning or fire weather watch.

Closer to home, Cal Fire Division Chief Ben Nicholls said he’s worried by a forecast for dry offshore winds, blowing from east to west and gusting from 20 to 45 mph on Sunday through Tuesday, compounded by sunny days in the low 70s Sunday and Monday.

The warm, dry spell will create “elevated fire conditions,” he said, calling it added evidence that California’s wildfire season “is truly year-round.”

While global warming, among other factors, is cited for California’s increasingly frequent and fearsome wildfires, meteorologists point to La Niña — a phenomenon characterized by unusually cold water temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean — as the force behind the arid winter.

A discarded lawn chair, most likely dropped from a boat during high water flows along Yorty Creek at Lake Sonoma, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A discarded lawn chair, most likely dropped from a boat during high water flows along Yorty Creek at Lake Sonoma, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“It’s what we would expect from a moderate La Niña system,” said Max Gawryla, a meteorologist with AccuWeather, a private company that provides forecasts for The Press Democrat’s weather page.

Storm fronts from the Gulf of Alaska are being shunted to the north by a ridge of high pressure shielding the Bay Area and diverting the rain to the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, he said.

“Let’s call it the Great Bay Area Wall,” said Brian Garcia of the National Weather Service office in Monterey, noting that rain is falling aplenty from Humboldt County northward.

Dusk falls as visitors to Lake Mendocino navigate the receding water line of the reservoir at dusk, using cell phone flashlights to find the trail to the south end parking lot in December 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Dusk falls as visitors to Lake Mendocino navigate the receding water line of the reservoir at dusk, using cell phone flashlights to find the trail to the south end parking lot in December 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Sonoma County’s coastal mountains also form a barrier that is “eating up the rain,” reducing precipitation from about 50% of average to 30%, he said.

The shortfall is affecting agriculture, including the county’s two largest commodities — wine and milk — and even curbing wastewater flow to Santa Rosa’s treatment plant.

Joe Pozzi, a Valley Ford cattle and sheep rancher, said farm ponds are falling and natural springs, like the ones he relies on for water, are drying up. The biggest problem, however, is stunted growth of grass in livestock pastures.

Moss grows on an exposed inlet in Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.  During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Moss grows on an exposed inlet in Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Without rain, ranchers are forced to deplete their stocks of dry hay, buy more feed or — as a last resort — downsize their herd.

“We’re not there yet,” said Pozzi, who’s been ranching since 1984.

“No matter how much dry hay you put out, the animals don’t do as well as they would on grass,” he said.

“It’s starting to get a little scary,” said Doug Beretta, who runs the Santa Rosa-area dairy founded by his grandfather in 1948.

If the dry spell continues, Beretta said he might have to start buying hay, and worries about whether the supply from California, Oregon and Nevada will be sufficient in a county with 56 licensed cow dairies.

The Lake Pillsbury elk herd grazes on winter grasses on the drought exposed lakebed, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The Lake Pillsbury elk herd grazes on winter grasses on the drought exposed lakebed, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

There are 47 certified organic dairies, including Beretta’s, that face an added concern over federal regulations mandating that every animal over six months old must spend at least 120 days in pastures receiving 30% of their feed.

Dairies that can’t meet the standard might have to shrink their herd or apply for a variance from the rule.

Some dairies are trucking in water to sustain their cows, which can drink a third of their body weight — 40 to 50 gallons of water — a day.

Beretta also is one of the 63 farm operators who obtain recycled wastewater from Santa Rosa’s treatment plant on Llano Road. That water can legally be consumed by animals not producing milk.

Squaw Valley Creek flows under boat slips near Pine Point campground, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021 on the partially dry Lake Pillsbury lakebed. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Squaw Valley Creek flows under boat slips near Pine Point campground, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021 on the partially dry Lake Pillsbury lakebed. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

But the rain-stingy season has also reduced water flowing into the treatment plant and the amount of recycled water stored in ponds at the facility, said Jennifer Burke, director of Santa Rosa Water.

There are usually 600 million gallons in storage this time of year, but there are now only 400 million gallons and the gap is likely to grow as storage capacity under normal weather conditions increases into spring, she said.

Without sufficient rainfall there may be “very little recycled water available” this year for agricultural users, Burke said.

Santa Rosa pipes 4.6 billion gallons of treated wastewater to geothermal power plants at The Geysers and stores the rest.

Grapevines are dormant during winter, immune to the dry conditions for now, said John Bidia, director of vineyards operations at Korbel Winery.

But the lack of rain is failing to replenish soil moisture and could impact the grape growing season, he said.

A growing shoreline at Lake Sonoma, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021 underlines the lack of rainfall this winter.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A growing shoreline at Lake Sonoma, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021 underlines the lack of rainfall this winter. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

When the vines start waking up in March they may need water for frost protection, said Bidia, who is in his 41st year with Korbel.

Two of Korbel’s seven vineyards store water in ponds; one is about 30% full and the other essentially empty with the water level below the outlet pipe.

Sonoma County’s dairy industry dates back to the 19th century and milk was the top commodity until it was surpassed by grapes in 1987.

Children's sunglasses, most likely dropped from a boat during high water flows along Yorty Creek at Lake Sonoma, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Children's sunglasses, most likely dropped from a boat during high water flows along Yorty Creek at Lake Sonoma, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

The county’s 2018 crop report, the latest one published, valued agriculture at $1.1 billion with wine grapes at nearly $778 million and milk at $141 million.

It’s unclear whether the county is entering a drought, since there are two weeks remaining in January, which averages 7.05 inches of rain, along with February (6.63 inches) and March (4.98 inches).

An inlet of Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma is difficult to navigate as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.  During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
An inlet of Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma is difficult to navigate as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“That’s the question everybody is asking,” said Davis, the water agency head.

The U.S. Drought Monitor placed more than 95% of California in one of four stages of drought last week. Nearly all of Sonoma County was in severe drought, while Napa and Lake counties were a level higher in extreme drought and Mendocino County was about evenly divided between the two levels.

A year ago, none of the state was in a drought condition.

Ultimately, it is up to the Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Department of Water Resources to declare a drought, Davis said.

Korbel's John Bidia inspects a nearly dry irrigation and frost protection pond at a Korbel vineyard in Guerneville, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Korbel's John Bidia inspects a nearly dry irrigation and frost protection pond at a Korbel vineyard in Guerneville, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

But there could be a break in the dry spell the weekend of Jan. 23 and 24, when AccuWeather, which does long-range forecasting, said the North Bay could get a half-inch to an inch of rain, followed by another 2 to 3 inches in the last week of the month.

“That would be huge. This could change overnight,” Pozzi said.

“We could make up a lot,” Beretta said

Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma is difficult to navigate as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021.  During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Yorty Creek on the east side of Lake Sonoma is difficult to navigate as water levels continue to drop, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. During an average year, the trees would be completely submerged. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

La Niña should fade in spring, offering the prospect of relief, meteorologist Garcia said.

But as much as the region needs rain, it could prove harmful if a downpour triggered debris flows over the region’s massive wildfire burn scars, he said.

“What we need is Goldilocks rain: not too little, not too much,” Garcia said.

The south end of Lake Mendocino shows the effects of paltry rain totals this winter as the reservoir near Ukiah continues to recede, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The south end of Lake Mendocino shows the effects of paltry rain totals this winter as the reservoir near Ukiah continues to recede, Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

There is also the possibility of a “March miracle” delivering enough precipitation to terminate a drought in one prolonged storm, but also bringing the threat of flooding.

In early March 2016, near what would be the end of California’s worst drought on record, a heavy storm, known as an atmospheric river, pumped both Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino up to more than 100% of capacity, leaving both the fullest they had been at that time of the year since 2012. It also stopped in time to avert flooding.

March miracles can be the stuff of dreams, said Brad Sherwood, a Sonoma Water spokesman. “They happen once in a while and when they do we dance with joy.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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