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Tension over new development rises amid water scarcity in Healdsburg

Healdsburg City Council Workshop scheduled Monday on Urban Water Management Plan

The Healdsburg City Council will review the draft update to its Urban Water Management Plan during a virtual workshop from 6-to-8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23.

Join on Zoom at https://cityofhealdsburg-org.zoom.us/j/83031755442.

Or dial 669-900-9128 or 253-215-8782 or 346-248-7799 and enter the meeting ID: 830 3175 5442 and press # #.

More information on the Urban Water Management Plan and a link to the draft plan are available at ci.healdsburg.ca.us/622/Urban-Water-Management-Plan.

The way Brigette Mansell sees it, the drastic water conservation measures already required of those who live in Healdsburg make it obvious the city needs to stop and think about how much more it can grow.

Development of luxury housing and hotels that cater to tony visitors and part-time residents — who may not be as invested in the community’s well-being — defies logic, she says.

Mansell, a former Healdsburg councilwoman and mayor, and other like-minded residents support continued efforts to provide affordable housing in the town.

But with more than 500 planned and prospective units in the pipeline — more than half of which would be sold at market rate — they want the city to suspend water hookups until officials have a more realistic grasp on balancing water supply and demand.

“Don’t be building something you cannot show you have water for,” Mansell said. “We don’t feel confident in our water security.”

Mansell said large projects currently in the works, like the Mill District and North Village — both combined housing and hotel developments — were authorized in part because of an erroneously rosy supply outlook contained in the city’s 2015 Urban Water Management Plan, which is required to be updated every five years by state law.

Mansell, who sat on the dais when a unanimous city council approved it, said the document prepared by a well-paid consultant failed to account for the kind of severe drought currently plaguing the region, as well as the unprecedented regulatory restrictions that have strained local supplies more than ever before.

Last month, she launched a petition drive calling for an emergency moratorium on water hookups until a new update to the plan is approved. She’s gathered more than 500 signatures so far.

“We want to stop adding to our water system, stop hookups — any new hookups that are nonessential — stop until we have a plan for the future,” Mansell said. “We’re only asking what the state is asking for our town, which is a viable plan that shows that we can in fact supply the businesses and residents of Healdsburg.”

Others in town are seeking detailed accounting of water demand by project component, development timelines and hospitality water use data.

“If we don’t any water, then you can’t hook up stuff. It’s a pretty simple principle,” said Healdsburg resident John Faulkner. “And if you’ve ever gone over to look at Lake Sonoma, if you look at Lake Mendocino, it’s a total freakout. People don’t grasp how dire this is.”

Healdsburg Utilities Director Terry Crowley and other city officials said it’s not clear that what Mansell terms “a pause” would have the desired effect even if the city could legally withdraw from development agreements that have already been negotiated.

None of the projects in the works will require a significant number of hookups until late 2022 or ’23, so the amount of staff time that would be invested in a moratorium for short-term savings would take away from other efforts that could save much more water, they said.

Crews broke ground at the start of the year on 41 low-income rental units on the south end of town in the Mill District, for instance. Thirty-nine luxury homes ranging in price from about $800,000 to more than $5 million will be constructed in the first phase of market rate housing, but the specific plans for those aren’t approved yet, Crowley said.

A 53-room luxury hotel, commercial space and another 120 homes — mostly market-rate condominiums and about 30 middle-income rental apartments — have been envisioned as part of the project, as well, though they could take a decade to build.

The project also is to include a rain capture system and a purple pipeline to carry recycled water through the development once the city is able to fund a system to transport reclaimed wastewater into central Healdsburg, City Manager Jeff Kay said.

City officials also cast doubt on petitioners’ assertion that the city could easily deny already approved water hookups based on the drought emergency, a move Kay said would require findings of “an imminent threat to public health” under state law.

“These are agreements,” Mayor Evelyn Mitchell said. “These people have received entitlements. For us to go back on that would be very difficult and potentially very costly. But I don’t think we need to do that, and we’re not planning to do that.”

In addition, developers are only bringing forward the affordable housing projects badly sought and required under state and regional building allocations because they’re required in exchange for permission to build the resorts and higher-end homes that bring in profits, Kay said.

Healdsburg City Council Workshop scheduled Monday on Urban Water Management Plan

The Healdsburg City Council will review the draft update to its Urban Water Management Plan during a virtual workshop from 6-to-8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 23.

Join on Zoom at https://cityofhealdsburg-org.zoom.us/j/83031755442.

Or dial 669-900-9128 or 253-215-8782 or 346-248-7799 and enter the meeting ID: 830 3175 5442 and press # #.

More information on the Urban Water Management Plan and a link to the draft plan are available at ci.healdsburg.ca.us/622/Urban-Water-Management-Plan.

Any new homes and resorts, as well as higher density housing, also must be built to state standards that make them more water- and energy-efficient than older homes and buildings, city officials said.

“We would lose lots of affordable housing,” if a moratorium were passed, Kay said. “I think that’s a practical outcome that we need to be honest with ourselves about. Affordable housing is not, for the most part, a stand-alone project that would proceed.”

“We’ve got two crises, and we need to find a way to work on both of them,” he said.

Concerns voiced by Mansell and her allies echo those raised around Sonoma County over the past several months, as the region’s landscape has grown increasingly parched and water supplies, alarmingly scarce.

Many local residents have wondered why cities continue to build new housing even as they impose water-use restrictions on existing residents. Climate scientists also warn of more extreme and frequent droughts to come.

“You can grasp the big picture pretty easily,” said Healdsburg resident John Faulkner, who is aligned with Mansell.

The debate they raise also reflects continuing tensions particular to Healdsburg, a one-time farm town transformed over the past 20-plus years into an upscale Wine Country destination that has priced out many who might have found homes there not long ago.

In part, that’s due to a 2-decade-old growth-management ordinance that limits new housing to 30 units a year, except in the case of lower-cost, affordable and multifamily dwellings. But the cachet and desirability of Healdsburg has also driven up prices and brought tourists in droves.

Locals have seen housing prices skyrocket and boutique hotel rooms multiply, along with high-end restaurants whose workers, finding Healdsburg too expensive, generally must reside elsewhere.

Now, after two years of critically low rainfall that have turned the Russian River watershed into ground zero for California’s drought, Healdsburg is operating under a 40% systemwide water conservation mandate with additional cutbacks to come.

Lake Mendocino is at the second-lowest level it has ever been and shrinking week-by-week. And the city, despite having some of the oldest, most senior water rights in the Russian River watershed, has recently been ordered to stop drawing any more water than is necessary to meet its residents’ basic health and safety needs. That amount is still being determined in negotiation with the State Water Resources Control Board, though the state’s default level is 55 gallons per capita per day.

Right now, residents are instructed by the city to use 74 gallons per day or less. Last year, they used, on average, 160.

But most had plenty of room to cut back, Kay said. The city’s traditionally high water-use patterns put Healdsburg’s per capita rates near the top of Sonoma County cities — with per person consumption about 1 1/2 times historical use in most other cities.

And data shows residents collectively cut their use by 46% in June of this year, compared to the same month last year, after the city set a 40% conservation rate.

Commercial use has only declined by 3% over last year, though it’s down 16% from 2019 — pre-COVID. While hotels account for only about 3% of the town’s water use over all, Mansell and others find it hard to imagine guests paying well over $1,000 or even $1,500 a night or folks visiting second and third homes worrying about how long their showers are or even appreciating the fact there’s a drought in the first place.

“It’s bad enough that people purchase homes in Healdsburg and then just rent them out, or they become vacation homes here, and they don’t become part of the community,” Faulkner said. “But the other thing is all these enormous projects that the city council has OK’d? We don’t have any water.”

Retired history professor Tyra Benoit moved to Healdsburg after the 2017 Tubbs fire destroyed her Santa Rosa home but has reviewed a video recording of the 2015 council meeting at which her new town’s water management plan was discussed.

Even though the region was near the end of a drought then, the consultant, she said, “made it sound like we’ve got plenty of water.”

“It seems to me that it was kind of like paper water — it looks good on paper, but it’s not real,” Benoit said.

Crowley said the plan as written in 2015, during what was then among the most serious droughts in history, reflects the best information the city had at the time — data from what had been the worst drought ever, 1975-to-77, analysis of population growth and change water use behavior.

But the current drought is proving to be unprecedented, Crowley said, with two of the three driest years on record (depending if the rainfall figures come from Ukiah or Santa Rosa), warming temperatures that have contributed to loss of moisture, rising populations and state-imposed restrictions on key water rights in the Russian River never before put off limits.

He said the updated Urban Water Management Plan now being drafted will account for what’s now understood about life under climate change and the more extreme conditions it creates, as well as the kinds of conservation efforts and mitigations the city will have to face going forward.

A public workshop on the plan is scheduled for Monday evening, with council action likely around October, Crowley said.

Mansell said she hopes the city takes a good, long look at the long-term implications before approving it.

“It’s not going well up here,” she said, “so why do we keep thinking that we’re going to get out of this in another year?”

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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