Sonoma County supervisors declare drought emergency
Sonoma County supervisors proclaimed a local drought emergency Tuesday, setting the stage for potential conservation mandates and other measures aimed at managing historically scarce water supplies while also positioning the county to seek disaster aid.
The proclamation, approved unanimously, followed a similar move by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who last week declared a drought emergency for Sonoma and Mendocino counties, citing record-low storage levels in the region’s two main reservoirs after two year of extremely low rainfall.
The county’s resolution requests the governor make state disaster aid available and seek federal assistance for the region, including a presidential disaster declaration.
Supervisors also sought to put consumers and other water users on notice that it’s time to get real about the severity of the water shortage and the shared sacrifices that will be needed to get through the dry months ahead. Supervisor Chris Coursey suggested residents already should know.
“I hope it doesn’t take us adopting a proclamation to get people to realize that we are in a drought year,” he said. “We’ve had two critically dry years with paltry amounts of rain. Our reservoirs are at historic lows. This is a no-brainer for us, obviously. We need to make this declaration.”
Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water, the region’s main drinking water supplier, said residents should “practice” using 20% to 25% less water than they have been, until further instructions come along — likely by next week.
“We’re in for a long, dry summer, obviously,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said, “and we’re all going to have to do our part to stay on top of this thing.”
He added that the county needs to be focused on both short- and long-term solutions, given the speedy advance of climate change and what are expected to be increased periods of severe drought and then severe flooding.
Several county officials noted that longtime residents have experienced serious drought before and know the basic steps that are needed to begin lowering water consumption.
“While you’re not hearing mandatory water conservation right now … this community has been here before,” Davis said. “We have responded, and we’ve done quite well. We’re well below what the targets were set in the last drought.”
The current situation already is more severe, however, given two years of rainfall so low that, combined, they don’t measure up to a full average year in any part of the Russian River watershed.
As a result, Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino are at their lowest levels this early in the year, with the hot, high-water-use months still ahead. Stored water in both goes to urban and rural residents and agricultural, industrial and commercials users around the area. Those supplies also sustain river flows for imperiled fish species and recreation.
Lake Mendocino sits at about 43% capacity, though about 15% of the remaining capacity is likely gone due to the large volume of silt and sediment collected over many years, Davis said.
Lake Sonoma is below 62% capacity, but with enough supply to stretch into another dry year, if needed, though only if every drop is used judiciously, water managers said.
In the meantime, wells already are running dry on dairy lands in southern Sonoma County, forcing ranchers to cull their herds or haul water from Petaluma.
About 780 individuals and interests with water rights to the Russian River are on notice the state water board might suspend their access.
The supervisors’ resolution states in part that “adverse environmental, economic, health, welfare and social impacts of the drought pose an imminent threat of disaster and threaten to cause widespread potential harm to people, businesses, agriculture, property, communities, the environment, wildlife and recreation” in the county.
Sonoma Water, which serves more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and northern Marin counties, already has won permission from state regulators to reduce releases from Lake Mendocino into the upper Russian River below levels established for optimal fish habitat. The agency is working on a second petition for extended critical flow reductions throughout the main stem, stretching all the way to the coast at Jenner.
As part of that request, state regulators are expected to require Sonoma Water to curtail its diversions for urban, industrial and commercial users.
The county Water Advisory Committee representing local municipalities and districts that serve as retailers is set to establish a voluntary conservation level for adoption in all communities as early as May 3.
Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins said the county would start by “asking people to do the right thing” with the knowledge the state will likely set mandatory cutbacks that, if they aren’t meant, will require something more forceful.
“You need to conserve now, or you’re going to be forced to conserve,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or email@example.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.