Water rationing begins in Sonoma County as cities plot steps to confront drought
Mandatory water rationing has begun in some areas of Sonoma County, as the region confronts a deepening drought reflected in record-low reservoir levels and looming state restrictions on withdrawals from the Russian River.
The cites of Cloverdale and Healdsburg already are under mandatory orders to reduce water use by at least 20%, compared with last year, with specific prohibitions on certain kinds of activities such as daytime watering and hosing down driveways and sidewalks.
But officials in most Sonoma County cities are opting for voluntary conservation measures at this point, placing their trust in residents to make necessary sacrifices and ensure there’s enough water going forward to satisfy basic human health and safety needs.
For most of those cities, there is the luxury of a buffer in their water supply. Much of the county’s population resides south of the confluence of Dry Creek and the Russian River, where releases from Lake Sonoma are still available to augment meager stores in smaller Lake Mendocino.
That is not the case for Healdsburg and Cloverdale, which sit above the confluence, and will be more reliant on groundwater in the coming months to bolster supplies.
No region is likely to be spared cuts, and some water watchers say they can’t come soon enough, to bring the public’s expectations in line with the grim reality of diminished supplies after two straight years of extraordinarily low rainfall.
“We’re starting way too late, and it’s just to going to get a lot worse,” said David Keller, Bay Area director of the Friends of the Eel River and a former Petaluma city councilman.
Making reductions on top of past savings
The counterargument is that North Bay residents have shown their willingness and ability to conserve water in the past and, on average, have cut per capita water use by 28% between about 2000 and 2020, despite a nearly 6% increase in population in that period, according to Drew McIntyre, general manager of the North Marin Water District and chairman of the Sonoma Water Technical Advisory Committee.
In Santa Rosa, Sonoma County’s largest city, consumers reduced demand by another 15% in the first three months of this year, once the city began messaging about conservation, said Jennifer Burke, chief of Santa Rosa Water.
Public officials say much of the savings can be made by reducing irrigation of landscaping and lawns.
“We just kind of have to hope that people will do the right thing,” said Cotati Councilwoman Susan Harvey, chair of the region’s Water Advisory Committee, which represents major cities and water districts that buy supplies from Sonoma Water, the region’s main wholesaler. “And if they don’t do the right thing, we will have to be more stringent. It’s always better to use the carrot than the stick.”
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will consider on Tuesday a resolution seeking a voluntary 20% reduction in use countywide. Counting on rain next year “does not seem like a very safe assumption at this point,” said Board Chair Lynda Hopkins.
But she said she’s more interested in ensuring that people use their water wisely and with purpose, than in setting hard and fast caps on how much people can use, as well as educating people to make sure they “realize what a dire situation we’re in right now.”
People who grow their own food, for instance, might use more water than someone who buys food, but those purchases reflect water use and other adverse environmental impacts, she said.
Meanwhile, water from the washing machine or shower might be used to flush a toilet or water plants, she said.
“I prefer to look at what are uses that are unacceptable right now,” Hopkins said. “Lawns are unacceptable, in my opinion. There’s just no justification for that when we’re looking at such severely curtailed flows in the Russian River, and such severe drought.”
Runoff gone, reservoirs are in retreat
Already, water levels in Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma are at their lowest levels for this time of year since the reservoirs were built — in 1958 and 1983, respectively. Runoff in the watershed has made been paltry after two successive years of rainfall so low the combined totals barely measured up to an average year of about 32 inches in Santa Rosa.
Lake Mendocino has been hovering around 43% full, while Lake Sonoma, which is more than three times larger, is about 61% full.