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Just below Liberty Glen Campground on Warm Springs Creek arm at Lake Sonoma, a steadily increasing shoreline surrounds a boater, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

‘There’s just no water to waste:’ Sonoma and Mendocino counties brace for renewed restrictions as drought deepens

Dwindling supplies, looming cuts make region an epicenter for wider state water crisis

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.

A boater floats through a stand of exposed oak trees on the Smith Creek arm of Lake Sonoma as the drought intensifies on the north coast, Thursday, April 22, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A boater floats through a stand of exposed oak trees on the Smith Creek arm of Lake Sonoma as the drought intensifies on the north coast, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

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.

Warm Springs Creek flows lazily on the lakebed of Lake Sonoma, Thursday, April 22, 2021 .(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Warm Springs Creek flows lazily on the lakebed of Lake Sonoma, Thursday, April 22, 2021 .(Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

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.

“I hope our community doesn’t wait for their local retailer to have to pass a resolution to start conserving water,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for Sonoma Water, which supplies more than 600,000 consumers in Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

Grim outlook for North Bay water supplies

Storage as of April 23 and capacity for this time of year

Lake Sonoma: 152,474 acre feet (about 62%)

Lake Mendocino: 36,740 acre feet (about 44%)

Annual rainfall Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 at Sonoma County airport

2019-20: 19.35 inches

2020-21: 12.77 inches (year to date)

Historic average: 32.26 inches

Source: Sonoma Water

“Everyone should be mindful of that and not waste a drop of water,” Jasperse said. “While the cities and district are going to take action, let’s not wait.”

Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins said the urgency of the situation should be evident in recent, stark images of lakes Mendocino and Sonoma, the two main reservoirs for the Russian River basin.

“I don’t think we need to set (conservation) targets” to convey the reality of the crisis, she said, given the signals that nature is providing.

“I think people receive information in different ways,” she said.

Receding water on Lake Mendocino exposes a sunken boat near the Bushay Recreation Area, Thursday, April 22, 2021 (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Receding water on Lake Mendocino exposes a sunken boat near the Bushay Recreation Area, Thursday, April 22, 2021 (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

The reservoirs supply water to most of Mendocino and Sonoma counties, as well as serving agricultural needs, sustaining aquatic life and providing recreational opportunities. Both reservoirs have never been lower at this time of year, with the dry months of high water use still to come.

The receding shorelines — shifted in places by hundreds of yards — have revealed expanses of parched and cracked lake bed, with barren embankments etched by lines from more plentiful years in the past.

“I will say it could be the drought of record,” said Jasperse. “It’s right there with 1976-77, depending where you get your rainfall data. It’s a severe two-year drought.”

Lake Mendocino, the far smaller reservoir, is holding about 44% of what it normally stores. Lake Sonoma is at about 62% of normal. Its supply, if carefully managed, should last through the year into next, water managers said.

A popular camping and fishing arm of Lake Sonoma, Yorty Creek is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, as California enters a second year of drought, Thursday, April 22, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A popular camping and fishing arm of Lake Sonoma, Yorty Creek is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate, as California enters a second year of drought, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“I think it’s very clear we all need to be conserving now,” Hopkins said Friday. “I recognize that there are analytical processes going on, in terms of the hard numbers right now, but my biggest message to the public is: ’Yes, it’s a drought. Yes, it’s urgent, and we all need to conserve.’”

Deeper cuts more difficult as historic use drops

Sonoma County residents have become fairly adept at cutting back where it is easy, as demonstrated by significant conservation efforts during the last drought.

In 2013, the average consumer in Sonoma and northern Marin counties was using 128 gallons of water per person, per day, compared to 107 gallons in 2019-20, according to the Sonoma-Marin Partnership annual report.

In Santa Rosa, residents managed to save so much water they were using only 86 gallons per capita, per day in 2016. The numbers had inched up by last year, but still remained well below a 129-gallon state target, Santa Rosa City Water Director Jennifer Burke said.

The drought exposed lakebed of Lake Mendocino, Thursday, April 22, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
The drought exposed lakebed of Lake Mendocino, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

There are some encouraging signs that early conservation messages are sinking in. Since January, when Santa Rosa began messaging aggressively about dry weather and the need to conserve, municipal customers cut their water use across the first three months by 15% compared to the first three months of 2020, Burke said.

“Our community is responding,” she said.

Sonoma Water also is delivering 25% less water to local cities and water companies than it did more than a decade ago. The biggest drop overlapped with the last drought, going from about 54,000 acre feet in 2014-15 to about 45,000 in 2019-20. (An acre foot is roughly the amount of water needed to cover a football field one foot deep.)

“Use has gone down because of conservation,” Sherwood said.

Rabbitt and Hopkins said mindful consumers have mastered the “low-hanging fruit” — the easy things like washing full loads of laundry and dishes, taking shorter showers and turning off faucets while brushing teeth.

Changes in landscaping and land use come next.

“It becomes a little more difficult to conserve water here on out,” Rabbitt said.

Lake Sonoma at Yorty Creek is a chessboard of dead oak trees that have emerged once again because of drought, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Lake Sonoma at Yorty Creek is a chessboard of dead oak trees that have emerged once again because of drought, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

Call for earlier action, lasting changes

Still, Russian Riverkeeper Don McEnhill, whose organization is focused on stewardship and advocacy, said he wishes more robust conservation messaging and measures had been employed last year, before waiting for a second dry year, “when there was a chance to keep some water in the lake.”

Lake Mendocino is so small, it can really only store a year or two worth of average rainfall, so having a year with only half of normal precipitation or less translates to significant supply impacts. Some of those dependent on releases into the upper Russian River also have wells and reservoirs to supplement withdrawals, but not all of them.

“We’re really all just looking around to see where we put the next foot forward,” said Dennis Murphy, co-owner of Murphy Vineyards in Alexander Valley.

A boater powers through the Smith Creek arm on Lake Sonoma as more and more dead oak and fir trees become exposed due to drought conditions, Thursday, April 22, 2021.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
A boater powers through the Smith Creek arm on Lake Sonoma as more and more dead oak and fir trees become exposed due to drought conditions, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

McEnhill said the entire watershed needs to readjust how it views water supply and efficiency, given the extremes of dry and wet weather are going to be more pronounced as climate change advances.

“We’ve got this massive change in the availability of water, especially in the upper Russian (River) but our water use patterns are static,” he said. “We haven’t adjusted them to this new reality.”

Newsom made a similar point about climate change and California’s imperiled water supply in his visit to Lake Mendocino last week.

“The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier,” he said. “We need to disenthrall ourselves with old ways of managing water supply and distribution.”

Vexing challenge for complex system

The ripples of this new drought are growing in magnitude for the region’s drinking and irrigation water, recreation and wildlife, setting motion a host of complicated moves to stave off the worst effects.

The Russian River water supply includes diversions from the Eel River through the Potter Valley Power Plant and is primarily rain-fed, but for a small amount of snow melt that finds its way into Lake Pillsbury and eventually into Lake Mendocino.

Raccoon tracks imprinted on the cracked lakebed of Lake Sonoma, Thursday, April 21, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Raccoon tracks imprinted on the cracked lakebed of Lake Sonoma, Thursday, April 21, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

That reservoir east of Ukiah is near the top of the system and sends its water downstream through the river to Sonoma County. Lake Sonoma, which lies west of Healdsburg, is drained by Dry Creek, which enters the river near Forestville, the hub of the region’s water supply system, with pipelines stemming out to municipal suppliers.

Releases from the two reservoirs are governed by the state under an old system of historic water rights and rules that differentiate several kinds of claims landowners can make and give priority to senior right holders over junior ones.

Sonoma Water, which manages the two reservoirs in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, holds rights to divert 75,000 acre feet water released from Lake Mendocino into the river each year. That’s well over twice what’s in the lake at present, some of which also can be claimed by others along the main stem of the upper river.

The water agency already has received permission from state regulators to release less water than is normally required for minimum protection of imperiled salmon and steelhead trout in the upper river. It is now is working on a new petition for lowered in-stream flows throughout the length of the river, stretching from Mendocino County to the Sonoma Coast at Jenner.

The negotiated agreement will also help establish how much water Sonoma Water has to provide to its retailers, including city agencies, some of whom may have alternate sources to bring into play, including wells or reservoirs, to offset reduced wholesale supplies.

But the bottom line is it could be some weeks before those thresholds are established.

Farm Bureau officials in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, the Russian River Flood Control & Water Conservation Improvement District outside Ukiah, county officials and others are trying to work out a shared solution to propose to the state. It would ensure senior and junior right holders could acquire some limited water from the river without anyone having to give theirs up entirely.

It’s an effort to “maybe spread the pain a little bit more,” rather than “all or nothing,” said Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the Division of Water Rights at the State Water Resources Control Board, who has been working with them.

Absent sufficient voluntary reductions, the state water board could take action to curtail water use as early as the next one to three months, a spokeswoman said.

Devon Jones, executive director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, said cooperating stakeholders have to develop a proposal that’s both acceptable to the state and palatable enough for junior and senior rights holders to buy in.

But she said she’s hopeful of success in both areas. A changing environment means the kind of collaboration at play now will be needed in the future, as well, she said.

“The alternative is pretty much 100% curtailment, which will create some pretty significant impacts in the Russian River watershed,” she said.

“It’s the something-is-better-than-nothing mentality,” she added. “I think this is a good model not just for this year ... (and) this is something that could be applicable to not just the Russian River watershed.”

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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