State issues curtailments in the Russian River watershed

More curtailments in the watershed are expected later this year with declining Eel River diversions through Potter Valley.|

State water regulators curtailed 331 water rights in the Russian River watershed effective Friday, ending a weekslong reprieve brought on by late-season rainfall that prevented restrictions from being imposed earlier this summer.

The long-expected order means several hundred ranchers, grape growers and other landowners are now prohibited from exercising rights to draw water from the river and some of its tributaries, because of insufficient supplies.

“We’re getting more and more efficient as time goes on, but it still hurts when you’re told you can’t irrigate any more on your property,” said Duff Bevill, a Dry Creek-area grape grower and vineyard manager, who oversees 1,200 acres. “It’s tough dry farming. If it were easy, we’d all be doing it.”

But the order means different things to different water rights holders. Some may have alternate water sources or other active water rights, while some may be participating in a new voluntary water sharing agreement that allows those with enough water to transfer part of their water right to those who are curtailed.

Margo Warnecke Merck is vineyard and ranch manager at Warnecke Ranch & Vineyards, between the Russian River and Chalk Hill Road east of Healdsburg. The land has been in her family for more than a century. She knows from past experience that water stored over the winter in a reservoir on the property will suffice to irrigate the vineyards through harvest, even though one of her five water rights is curtailed.

But she also welcomed the opportunity to help others who might not be so lucky and joined the sharing agreement, which was developed by regional stakeholders and approved by the State Water Resources Control Board last month.

The program has attracted 135 water right holders, including the city of Ukiah and the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, which have water to share.

“We’re all trying to work together, I hope,” Merck said. “We’re all in it together.”

One of those who hopes to benefit is Isaul “Junior” Macias, vineyard manager at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyard in Alexander Valley, which had its water right curtailed Friday and is part of the water sharing agreement.

But Macias said he also took significant steps to prepare for the inevitable this year, including adopting the use of soil agents that are applied to his vineyards through the drip system and help limited irrigation supplies penetrate deeply and stay longer in the root zone.

In addition, 20 acres of unproductive vines have been pulled out, further reducing water needs.

Also, an enormous problem with leaking irrigation pipes, caused largely by thirsty wildlife chewing into the lines, has been reduced by leaving water buckets out for the animals at the end of vineyard rows.

“I feel much more comfortable going forward this year compared to last year because of the steps we have taken and am a fan of this water sharing program,” Macias said. “It’s still fairly new, so we’ll see moving forward.”

The majority of those affected are in the upper Russian River along the main stem and possess what are called “riparian water rights.” Riparian rights apply to those whose land touches the water, said Sam Boland-Brien, supervising engineer with the State Water Resources Control Division of Water Rights.

The list of curtailed water rights includes numerous vineyards in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, including areas like Alexander Valley and Knights Valley, as well as entities like the Pepperwood Foundation, the Lytton Rancheria of California and the Sonoma County Water Agency, though, like many others, the water agency holds multiple water rights in the watershed.

All but two affected water rights are located upstream of the Dry Creek confluence, state water regulatory staff said.

The current order has far less impact than last year’s curtailments, which suspended about 18,000 water rights in the upper and lower watershed beginning in August, as Lake Mendocino shrank to near its record low of 12,081 acre feet, set in 1977. The lake reached 12,864 acre feet before rain arrived last fall, partially replenishing the reservoir but still leaving a deficit. On Thursday, it was at 50,627 acre feet. (An acre-foot is a unit of measure equal to 325,851 gallons, or about the amount of water needed to flood most of a football field one-foot deep.)

Lake Mendocino storage during recent drought years compared to 2012-2021 average. (Sonoma Water)
Lake Mendocino storage during recent drought years compared to 2012-2021 average. (Sonoma Water)

This year’s curtailments come a month earlier than last year’s.

“It’s a month more in the middle of the summer, with some people with no water,” Bevill said. “It’s an extra four weeks of potential irrigation stress. Welcome to farming.”

This round of curtailments won’t likely be the last, as drought conditions intensify this summer and flow reductions through the Potter Valley power plant into Lake Mendocino are announced.

Diminished transfers of Eel River water through the disabled hydroelectric project into the East Fork Russian River and ultimately into the Ukiah-area reservoir would directly affect downstream users and could spur new curtailments.

Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the Division of Water Rights, told the State Water Resources Control Board in June to expected “a pretty significant” drop in reservoir inflows once federal energy regulators decide how low to allow diversions to go.

Even at the current, relatively high flows through Potter Valley, Lake Mendocino holds just 58% of its target storage level for this time of year with a full season of hot weather ahead and many months to go before any substantial rain can realistically be anticipated.

Water is being released from the reservoir at a level just high enough to meet federal requirements for protected salmon and steelhead trout and other basic human health and safety, environmental and recreational needs.

In areas of the watershed where there are no “natural flows” from rain and runoff remaining, those with riparian diversion rights have been told there is too little water for them to take.

Alexander Valley grape grower Dennis Murphy, of Murphy Ranch, has had water rights curtailed that he wouldn’t use now anyway because it only allows him to take water from the river in the wet winter months to store for summer.

But he was among those who worked for many months to develop the voluntary water sharing program and said that he encouraged everyone around him to sign up.

Otherwise, “it’s an on/off switch if you’re not involved,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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