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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.