It has taken until the end of the second straight historically dry winter, but California and its vast network of urban and agricultural water suppliers, including those on the parched North Coast, are now ramping up to confront the drought that is tightening its grip on the state.
Sonoma County supervisors are set on Tuesday to proclaim a drought emergency , becoming the first local government to take formal action on a burgeoning water crisis that Gov. Gavin Newsom highlighted Wednesday. From the receding shoreline of Lake Mendocino, he made Sonoma and Mendocino counties first on what is certain to be a growing list of California locales where drought has become formally entrenched.
Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the region’s other main reservoir, are lower than they have ever been at this time of year — at the close of the wettest months of the rainy season.
“There’s just no water to waste, period,” said Brad Sherwood, government and public affairs manager for Sonoma Water, the region’s largest supplier.
Mendocino County supervisors declared a drought emergency last week, and the same move by their counterparts in Sonoma raises another official alarm about the region’s severe water shortage, a deficit deepened after another winter of less than half of average rainfall.
In Santa Rosa, the scant share by Saturday was 38% — a meager 12.77 inches since Oct. 1. Even a substantial spring rainstorm, as forecast for Sunday, offers little replenishment.
The ramifications for hundreds of thousands of local residents, farmers and ranchers, summertime recreation and wildlife are expanding as the arid season arrives.
“Whether a mandatory conservation request is made, anyone who looks at a Lake Sonoma or Lake Mendocino can see it,” Sherwood said. “Anyone who is a dairy person whose wells are going dry is living it. We’re all living it.”
Sequel to state’s worst drought?
The cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma are scheduled to consider similar drought declarations in the coming weeks while asking residents for voluntary cuts in water use of up to 20%. Healdsburg and other cities are expected to follow suit, treading a worn path all-too-familiar to local residents.
We have been down this road before.
It was only a few years ago that the region and state broke free from the restrictions of the last, worst-ever drought — a five-year ordeal that began in 2012. For many, it drove home the reality of climate change, triggering sharp reductions in water use and penalties for noncompliance while depleting reservoirs and stoking a new era of devastating wildfires in the state.
Many of the same restrictions, fees and conservation measures are now on tap and likely to come in the weeks and months ahead.
Hundreds of land owners and small community water districts along the upper Russian River already are on notice that state regulators might suspend their rights to draw water from the river as supplies diminish.
Hundreds of thousands of urban residents will be next in the region. Officials are waiting on word of how much water is available for each municipality before informing consumers of the conservation steps that will be necessary to make it to the next rainy season. The Marin Municipal Water District, which serves central and southern Marin County, is the exception at this point, having already imposed water-use restrictions on its customers.
Local agencies have so far been reluctant to move immediately in that direction, holding out hope that March would bring a miracle round of storms. They never appeared, and it’s clear now that “mandatory rationing” eventually will be needed, said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt.
“I think the truth of the matter is we all need to reduce our usage, and we all need to conserve every drop of water,” Rabbitt said. “Conservation efforts aren’t just going to be for the residents of the Russian River watershed, but for agricultural, commercial and industrial users.”
Start saving water now
But while residents may feel they are in limbo, awaiting specific marching orders, they shouldn’t delay taking action, officials said.