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Water rationing begins in Sonoma County as cities plot steps to confront drought

Water conservation measures in Sonoma County

Cloverdale: Mandatory 25-30% reduction from 2020

Healdsburg: Mandatory 20% reduction from 2020

Petaluma: Voluntary 20% reduction from average 2018-20

Sebastopol: Voluntary 10% reduction from 2020

Valley of the Moon: Voluntary 20% reduction from 2020

Windsor Voluntary: 20% reduction from 2020

Rohnert Park City Council: to consider voluntary 20% reduction (pending May 11)

Santa Rosa City Council: to consider voluntary 20% reduction (pending May 18)

Sonoma City Council: to consider voluntary 20% reduction (pending June 7)

Board of Supervisors to consider voluntary, countywide 20% reduction May 11

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.”

A drought parched reservoir, Thursday, April 29, 2021, used for frost protection, worries Bret Munselle a fifth generation Alexander Valley farmer.  With 300 acres of vineyards to look after, a freezing morning could deplete the storage pond.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A drought parched reservoir, Thursday, April 29, 2021, used for frost protection, worries Bret Munselle a fifth generation Alexander Valley farmer. With 300 acres of vineyards to look after, a freezing morning could deplete the storage pond. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

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.

Water conservation measures in Sonoma County

Cloverdale: Mandatory 25-30% reduction from 2020

Healdsburg: Mandatory 20% reduction from 2020

Petaluma: Voluntary 20% reduction from average 2018-20

Sebastopol: Voluntary 10% reduction from 2020

Valley of the Moon: Voluntary 20% reduction from 2020

Windsor Voluntary: 20% reduction from 2020

Rohnert Park City Council: to consider voluntary 20% reduction (pending May 11)

Santa Rosa City Council: to consider voluntary 20% reduction (pending May 18)

Sonoma City Council: to consider voluntary 20% reduction (pending June 7)

Board of Supervisors to consider voluntary, countywide 20% reduction May 11

Drought conditions intensify on the Cherry Creek arm of Lake Sonoma, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Drought conditions intensify on the Cherry Creek arm of Lake Sonoma, Thursday, April 22, 2021. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Sonoma Water, which controls drinking water supplies from the lakes, learned recently that a small amount of the water it had counted on through diversions from the Eel River between now and October won’t be coming. The Eel River is also running low, and PG&E, in consultation with wildlife agencies and the Round Valley Indian Tribe, got federal permission to hold back some of the water in Lake Pillsbury to sustain endangered fish in the Eel River later this year, meaning less water is available to divert through the Potter Valley Project and on into Lake Mendocino.

That means, barring any freak summer storm, Lake Mendocino has reached its peak storage level, said Donald Seymour, principal water agency engineer with Sonoma Water.

In addition, the water agency will begin drawing down stored supplies to ensure there’s enough water flowing in the Russian River for imperiled salmon and steelhead trout and domestic and agricultural users along the main stem.

In the next week or two, “we’re going to have to augment with stored water,” Seymour said.

Russian River to dry up in places?

Though water managers had put out word that low rainfall meant low supplies, it wasn’t until March came and went without the kind of significant storm activity that officials began to sound the alarm about the severity of the situation.

Though the majority of California is now considered to be in “extreme drought,” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, Gov. Gavin Newsom last month singled out Sonoma and Mendocino counties, proclaiming a local drought emergency because of the shrinking water supply.

Gov. Gavin Newsom shares the dried basin of Lake Mendocino with a resident goose as he listens to local water officials answer questions from the media, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Newsom announced he would proclaim a drought emergency for Mendocino and Sonoma counties.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Gov. Gavin Newsom shares the dried basin of Lake Mendocino with a resident goose as he listens to local water officials answer questions from the media, Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Newsom announced he would proclaim a drought emergency for Mendocino and Sonoma counties. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

The decision authorizes the State Water Resources Control Board to adopt emergency regulations limiting the claims of hundreds who hold water rights in the Russian River, including large suppliers like Sonoma Water, which provides water to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and northern Marin counties and many domestic, agricultural and other users north of Dry Creek, who are wholly dependent on water from Lake Mendocino.

More than 700 water right holders already have been put on notice that curtailments could be coming, with notices possible within the next month, said Sam Boland-Brien, a supervising engineer with the state water board.

“Conditions are dire,” Boland-Brien said. “Lake levels are really low, and if it runs out, there will be no flows in the Russian River.”

That scenario has happened before — in 1977, during the second year of a punishing statewide drought, Seymour said.

“There was discontinuous flow in the Russian River. It was bad,” he said.

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

Federal rules governing protected fish habitat now require Sonoma Water to maintain minimum stream flows to safeguard salmon and steelhead populations.

But because supplies are so short, the agency has sought and secured permission to further reduce flows in the upper river to conserve water in Lake Mendocino. The agency is now working on a more expansive request to reduce stream flows to the bare minimum in the both the upper and lower river, stretching from outside Ukiah to the Sonoma Coast.

Its widely expected that state regulators will require a mandatory cut in water use as a condition, and local officials have been working with a figure of 20%, though the actual reduction isn’t known yet.

Most cities taking gradual, voluntary steps

On Monday, the water agency’s Water Advisory Committee — made up of representatives from Cotati, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sonoma and Windsor, plus the Marin Municipal, North Marin and Valley of the Moon water districts — approved a resolution seeking voluntary 20% conservation. The same target would be applied to affiliated members of the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership, which also includes Healdsburg and Cal-American Water, which serves the communities of Larkfield and Geyserville.

Many city councils and district boards have approved their own voluntary 20% conservation models, including Petaluma, Windsor and the Valley of the Moon Water District.

Sebastopol opted to ask residents for 10% water use reductions because the city’s water supply comes from groundwater aquifers that have held steady for years, Mayor Una Glass said.

The Cloverdale City Council approved mandatory conservation targets of 25% to 30% in late April, while the Healdsburg council approved mandatory cutbacks of 20% on May 3. Both cities also now prohibit certain water uses in order to conserve every drop possible.

In Sonoma, where per capita water use is generally higher than in other Sonoma County cities, Mayor Logan Harvey said existing conditions likely warranted conservation efforts beyond a voluntary 20% reduction.

But he said the larger challenge was how to shift the prevailing culture, in which “we expect a lot of excess,“ to one in which limited resources are used judiciously and shared equitably.

The north end of Lake Mendocino, Thursday, April 22, 2021 near Ukiah. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
The north end of Lake Mendocino, Thursday, April 22, 2021 near Ukiah. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

There’s also the disconnect between stark photos of near-empty reservoirs and the fact that “you turn on the faucet and water comes out,” he said.

“I think the situation appears to be very, very dire and one of the worst droughts we’ve encountered," Harvey said. ”So it seems to me that we should be putting on more restrictions, higher restrictions. This is the new reality that we live in. This is climate change.“

State intervention looming

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who represents Healdsburg and Cloverdale, as well as famed grape growing regions Dry Creek and Alexander valleys, said that his rural constituents with historic water rights are scrambling to come up with a voluntary framework for cuts to stave off state intervention.

“This is not just little willy-nilly, a little bit of conservation here, a little bit of conservation let-your-grass-go-brown there,” he said. “We are expecting significant action from the state midsummer that includes curtailments on water rights and mandatory rationing.”

Exemptions could be obtained for domestic use, but at a conservative level of 55 gallons per person per day. That’s the statewide standard established in 2018 as a target for all Californians to consider as the benchmark for waterwise consumption through the year 2025, when it drops to 50.

The need for conservation isn’t limited to those in the north county, Gore said, but throughout the watershed.

“We need to move heavy and fast on this because we can’t assume that we’re going to get a significant amount of water this winter,” Gore said.

A discarded umbrella on an inlet of Yorty Creek, Thursday, April 22, 2021 at Lake Sonoma. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
A discarded umbrella on an inlet of Yorty Creek, Thursday, April 22, 2021 at Lake Sonoma. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

He recalled an episode from December 2012, near the beginning of the last, five-year drought, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers released nearly 25,000 acre feet of water from Lake Mendocino to prepare for more rain only to have a long span of dry weather, instead.

Failure to conserve adequately now would be tantamount to that, he said.

“Lowest recorded levels in Lake Sonoma since it was put in. That does not match with 20% voluntary reduction,” Gore said.

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 correct information about PG&E’s variance for water diversions from the Eel River.

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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