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