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State water regulators to consider emergency limits on as many as 2,400 Russian River users

Proposed emergency Russian River curtailment triggers

Lake Mendocino is currently just more than 38% full, holding 33,950 acre feet of water, or 2,868 acre feet less than it did one month ago. An acre feet is enough water to cover an area about the size of a football field with a foot of water.

If emergency regulations are approved June 15, curtailment orders would be issued for Russian River diverters only if lake storage falls below the following levels prior to the specified dates:

– 29,315 acre feet before July 1;

– 27,825 acre feet before July 15;

– 26,109 acre feet before August 1;

– 24,614 acre feet before Aug. 15;

– 22,745 acre feet before Sept. 1;

– 21,251 acre feet before Sept. 15;

– 20,000 acre feet on any date while the emergency regulation is in effect.

State regulators are considering sweeping drought emergency rules that would let them suspend the diversion of water from the Russian River by as many as 2,400 homes, businesses, municipal agencies and other users. The proposal, which would cover both the upper and lower parts of the watershed, could greatly extend the list of more than 900 water suppliers, agricultural producers and property owners already notified there has been too little rainfall for them to exercise their water rights this year.

The draft regulation goes before the state water board next Tuesday and could account for substantial monthly savings, depending when diversions are limited, Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the state water board’s Division of Water Rights, said during a virtual Sonoma County Town Hall on the drought last week.

Those affected would include residents of both Sonoma and Mendocino counties, a region singled out by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April for being at particular risk of water shortage after two dry years because of its dependence on a reservoir system subject to rapid depletion in the absence of regular rainfall.

With storage in Lake Mendocino, the smaller of the reservoirs, diminishing by the day, state regulators are hoping they can slow its consumption by reserving withdrawals for those with the oldest, most senior water claims and, potentially, curtailing even them.

“We really are in dire circumstances,” Ekdahl said.

State regulators already have instructed about 930 water right holders above the confluence of Dry Creek with claims acquired after 1914 — the year California first began regulating water rights — that there is insufficient supply this year for them to exercise their rights. Those who continued to divert water after June 1 could be subject to fines of up to $1,000 per day.

At the same time, May 25, the state issued warning letters to about 660 people in the upper watershed with pre-1914 water rights that emergency regulations were in the works through which they, too, could be subject to limited diversions.

Another 800 or so users in the lower river area also could be subject to restrictions under the draft regulation, water board staff said this week.

It’s unclear how lower river users were notified of their exposure to curtailment, though Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said she believed all were aware.

“I don’t think anybody is going to be caught off guard,” she said, “and when I talk to people, they say, ’All you have to do is look at Lake Mendocino or the Russian River or Lake Sonoma to see’” there isn’t much water.

Much of the region already is under 20% voluntary conservation orders, at a minimum, and Sonoma Water, which provides domestic water to more than 600,000 consumers in Sonoma and northern Marin counties, has pledged to withdraw a fifth less water from the river system. Healdsburg and Cloverdale in Sonoma County and many Mendocino County communities north of Dry Creek are under mandatory rationing, so closely guarded are supplies in Lake Mendocino.

Agricultural users, as well, have been reducing water use by planting less and culling livestock. But some of those decisions were made even before the question of state limits arose, including a property well-known vineyard manager Duff Bevill mentioned Tuesday for which it was decided in February and March to prune back dramatically to reduce water use, likely cutting the crop by half.

Bevill, who farms 30 or 40 ranches in different areas of the county, said many vineyards affected by state orders won’t have to stop using water because their storage ponds already are dry or they won’t have started irrigating yet this season.

“We’ve only just begun to irrigate our most drought intolerant vineyards,” he said. “...There are some vineyards I won’t irrigate this whole year.”

Katie Jackson, part of the Jackson Family Wines clan, said the company had stopped using water on properties where water is not available and is “continuing to take proactive water conservation measures in response to the drought.”

“This past year, we fallowed acreage in the Russian River watershed which has recognized significant water savings,” she said.

Cutbacks would vary by type and age of water right, as well as how Lake Mendocino fares as summer intensifies, temperatures rise, evaporation increases and, with it, the temptation by consumers and agricultural users to use more water.

Both Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, which is about four times larger, were at historically low levels this spring. The latter currently holds 56% of its capacity, while the smaller lake has 38.5% of its summertime storage capacity.

Proposed emergency Russian River curtailment triggers

Lake Mendocino is currently just more than 38% full, holding 33,950 acre feet of water, or 2,868 acre feet less than it did one month ago. An acre feet is enough water to cover an area about the size of a football field with a foot of water.

If emergency regulations are approved June 15, curtailment orders would be issued for Russian River diverters only if lake storage falls below the following levels prior to the specified dates:

– 29,315 acre feet before July 1;

– 27,825 acre feet before July 15;

– 26,109 acre feet before August 1;

– 24,614 acre feet before Aug. 15;

– 22,745 acre feet before Sept. 1;

– 21,251 acre feet before Sept. 15;

– 20,000 acre feet on any date while the emergency regulation is in effect.

The Sonoma County Water Agency controls releases from both reservoirs and is seeking particularly to keep flows from Lake Mendocino at the lowest possible level needed for imperiled juvenile salmon and steelhead trout. If users along the river’s main stem and tributaries draw excessive water, especially above the confluence of Dry Creek, where water flows from Lake Sonoma, additional releases would be needed to keep the upper river from running dry.

Water managers are desperate to avoid that and are aiming at starting autumn with a reserve of water in Lake Mendocino equal to just more than half of what’s in there now, in the event the region were to confront a third consecutive year of below-normal rainfall.

“If the reservoir were to drain, especially next year, we anticipated there would be some relatively catastrophic, redirected, impacts,” Ekdahl said.

The emergency regulation up for approval next week includes a trigger point tied to Lake Mendocino storage levels which, at certain dates, would allow the water board to limit water diversions.

Water right holders or their representatives are responsible under the regulation for checking the water board’s drought announcement website and staying apprised of developments. The limits would take effect the day after they were issued, and those affected would have seven days to submit certification of their compliance, under penalty of perjury.

Exemptions would exist for domestic water use, allowing up to 55 gallons per day, per person, though individuals must identify efforts to obtain alternate water sources, according to the draft regulation. If other water sources are available, residents are still limited to 55 gallons per person, per day.

The water board is holding a public workshop on the emergency rule Thursday on Zoom. More infromation is available at waterboards.ca.gov/drought/russian_river/.

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

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the number of water right holders potentially affected by the drought regulation.

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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