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State orders halt to hundreds of Russian River diversions in Sonoma, Mendocino counties as drought imperils supplies

State’s freeze on Russian River diversions

The California State Water Resources Control Board issued notices this week to 930 entities in Sonoma and Mendocino counties with rights to divert water from the upper Russian River telling them the drought has diminished supplies so substantially that there is no longer enough water for them to take.

Those affected this week and next are all located upriver of the confluence of Dry Creek near Healdsburg and include farmers, grape growers, rural residents, towns and small water providers and utilities. Many may still have access to groundwater wells or have other water rights permitting them to continue drawing on the river.

Violators may be fined $1,000 a day or $2,500 per acre foot of water diverted.

State regulators have begun notifying more than 900 water rights holders in Sonoma and Mendocino counties that they must stop drawing from the upper Russian River, where drought-shriveled flows are unable to sustain those diversions for irrigation and household use, according to the state.

The crackdown affects grape growers and other farm producers, as well as rural residents and several communities along the upper river — from Healdburg north to Ukiah — where groundwater and other rights are likely to be used more heavily in the coming months to keep crops alive and taps flowing. Those who don’t comply could face fines of up to $1,000 a day.

It is the strongest action yet by regulators in response to dwindling supplies in the sprawling Russian River watershed and its two receding reservoirs. Lake Mendocino, which sits at the top of the basin and helps sustain flows in the upper river through the dry months, holds less than 41% of its capacity for this time of year.

“Unless we immediately reduce diversions, there is a real risk of Lake Mendocino emptying by the end of this year,” Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the water board’s Division of Water Rights, said Wednesday.

The State Water Resources Control Board wants an immediate halt of withdrawals by those above the confluence with Dry Creek who claim “appropriative” water rights acquired after 1949, the point when authorization was granted for construction of Coyote Dam, which would create Lake Mendocino.

The notice extends until next week the impact on those with more senior rights, whose claims date back to 1914, the year the state first began to regulate surface water use. Those individuals are instructed to stop diverting water beginning June 1.

“We need to implement the water rights system to protect supplies in case of another dry winter, which could transform the Russian River into a series of disconnected pools and restrict the availability of drinking water in the area,” Ekdahl said.

The state’s move to restrict Russian River diversions has been anticipated for weeks and is likely to remain in effect until winter rains return, assuming they do.

The water board has so far sent notices to 930 water right holders in the two counties informing them supplies are insufficient to fulfill their claims and still ensure local communities have enough drinking water for this year and next.

The move affects grape growers and farmers, as well as other rural landowners, residents and small water suppliers that run from Ukiah through Hopland and Cloverdale. There are exemptions for those who depend on diverted water for human health and safety needs and who can show they already conserve as much water as possible.

Many with claims to the Russian River hold different kinds of water rights and also have access to groundwater wells or even springs on which they can lean if they lose their ability to draw water through an appropriative right — one that isn’t related to land adjacency. Others permitted to store diverted water may have reserves on hand to help see them through to the next rain.

But there are plenty of growers in rural areas who “don’t have another bucket to pursue — or at least, a big enough bucket to pursue,” said Sean White, water and sewer director for the city of Ukiah and a longtime water manager in the region.

They include pear growers, alfalfa farmers and grape growers, too. “It’s going to be tough for them,” White said.

The notices mailed out Tuesday are legally distinct from curtailment orders, which offer water rights holders no opportunity to challenge calculations at the heart of the crackdown, Ekdahl said.

But while recipients who continue to divert surface water can request a hearing they are still subject to enforcement and fines up to $1,000 per day and $2,500 per acre-foot of unauthorized water. An acre-foot is enough water to cover a football field about a foot deep or about enough to provide for a family household for a year.

Alexander Valley grape grower Dennis Murphy, of Murphy Ranch, said anyone ignoring the notice would be running a significant risk, given the severity of the drought and the enforcement effort likely to be mounted by the state water board.

“There really is zero water available,” he said.

Talking by cellphone Thursday as he drove from one store to another in search of plumbing parts and connectors to try to do what he could to stretch his existing water supply over the 120 days or so his cabernet grapes will need to be ready for harvest, Murphy said he already had spoken with his insurance company about abandoning certain blocks in the vineyard this season.

State’s freeze on Russian River diversions

The California State Water Resources Control Board issued notices this week to 930 entities in Sonoma and Mendocino counties with rights to divert water from the upper Russian River telling them the drought has diminished supplies so substantially that there is no longer enough water for them to take.

Those affected this week and next are all located upriver of the confluence of Dry Creek near Healdsburg and include farmers, grape growers, rural residents, towns and small water providers and utilities. Many may still have access to groundwater wells or have other water rights permitting them to continue drawing on the river.

Violators may be fined $1,000 a day or $2,500 per acre foot of water diverted.

For the rest, there are some new products that help grape vines better tolerate heat and resist heat stroke. “A lot of it’s going to be experimental this summer,” along with tried and true management practices proven over decades in the industry, he said.

For everyone, “there’s going to be some hard choices about what to water and what not to water,” Murphy said.

The water board signaled curtailment orders — a more complex regulatory process — are coming and could be imposed on those with very senior, pre-1914 rights as well as those with riparian rights — those with land that touches water bodies or water courses. All diverters already have been asked to use as little water as possible given historically low seasonal water levels in Lake Mendocino and far larger Lake Sonoma, which sits at 58% capacity.

After two very low rainfall years, both reservoirs are at the lowest levels ever this early in the year, with the dry, high-water-user summer months still to come.

Bret Munselle, who farms 300 acres of wine grapes in the Alexander Valley with his father, Bill, and another 400 acres for different clients said they had some groundwater wells they could use but likely not enough to supplant what he would lose if he was cut off from diverting river water.

He hadn’t received his notice yet and so was reluctant to draw too many conclusions, but said most vineyards in the region had been raised on drip irrigation, dependent on small amounts of water on a fairly frequent basis so they used less water overall than when sprinklers were used.

The result is the small, intensely flavored fruit best for fine wines, he said.

But with the prospect of little or no water available to many growers in the critical summer months, some vineyard owners were contemplating drastic action, including removing a large volume of grape clusters so all available liquid and energy could go into a partial crop or pruning off the canes altogether and forgoing a harvest this year in hopes of keeping the vines alive.

Munselle said there was little to do before seeing the specifics in the state board’s plan, but “if it’s a complete curtailment, it will be bad. It will really be bad for the valley floor of Alexander Valley.”

Barb Petersen, office manager for Hoot Owl Creek and Alexander Valley Vineyards, said a reservoir on the grounds holds about 16 million gallons of water and is nearly full. She said crews had been checking and double-checking lines to ensure there was no leakage and probably would be watering only when stress tests shows the vines absolutely needed it.

Anticipating reduced access to river water, she said she put together a worksheet to figure out how much water would be available to workers, nine households on the property, the tasting room and wine production, but the rules for use of stored water are different for different purposes, so there were still lots of questions to be answered about what would be permitted and how state interventions would affect different water rights on the property.

Isaul “Junior” Macias, who will soon be taking over as manager for the two vineyards, said two springs and a groundwater well, along with the reservoir storage, mean their 300 acres of grapes may come through summer better than others’.

But “I’m not saying this is not going to be hard,” he said. “I’m just trying to judge and balance irrigation cycles. I want to be as efficient as possible going forward.”

Claire Ramey, co-owner of Ramey Cellars in Healdsburg, said her family had been contemplating some “major replanting” in a chardonnay vineyard along the river but might have to rethink that now. But it remained unclear how they would be affected by the state’s actions, given what thought were very senior water rights.

“We are definitely on tenterhooks,” she said. “It’s pretty sweeping of them, and I imagine they will get some pushback, because that’s pretty dramatic of them to pull on people midseason.”

Russian River water right holders were among about 40,000 statewide who received early warning notices in March alerting them of potential shortages this year. Though water insufficiency notices or curtailments are likely in other watersheds in the coming months, Russian River users are the first to receive them so far, according to Ekdahl.

Sonoma and Mendocino counties also were the first counties for which Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 22 proclaimed a local drought emergency, doing so while standing on the dry lake bed of a diminished Lake Mendocino. The proclamation now covers 41 California counties.

Similar strictures imposed on 652 water rights holders on the Russian River in 2014 lasted from May 27 to Nov. 14 of that year, with additional orders issued part way through the summer.

The water board’s current action is part of a multipronged effort to address what are now deemed “exceptional drought” conditions — the most severe category — in the Russian River watershed, which is dependent on regular rainfall to supply domestic and agricultural water.

Sonoma Water, the county agency that acts as the region’s main drinking water wholesaler, also is seeking permission from the state to release less water from Lake Mendocino than is usually required for imperiled salmon and steelhead trout in order to preserve supplies.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and most local cities have asked constituents to voluntarily cut water use 20% compared to last year, saying mandatory conservation measures will be required if voluntary efforts don’t suffice.

Russian River - Lifeblood of the North Coast

The Russian River watershed takes in 1,500 square miles of landscape between Mendocino and Sonoma counties, with the 110-mile river at its center stretching from the headwaters north of Redwood Valley and Ukiah to Jenner, where it empties into the Pacific Ocean.

It is the lifeblood of communities throughout the region, providing water to more than 600,000 people served by Sonoma Water, which manages flows released from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the basin’s two main reservoirs.

It also provides habitat for wildlife, including imperiled chinook and coho salmon and steelhead trout; supports a thriving outdoor recreational industry and is critical to the region’s agricultural sector.

Flows in the Russian River are determined by runoff from rainfall, but also substantially by:

— Water diversions into the upper river from the Eel River, through the century-old Potter Valley powerhouse

—Management of the dams at Lake Mendocino, on the East Fork of the Russian River, and Lake Sonoma, which drains into Dry Creek, a tributary that meets the Russian River southwest of Healdsburg

For real-time river flow and reservoir information, visit sonoma.onerain.com.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. 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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