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PD Editorial: Another drought year in the forecast

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

While residents of the Southeast clean up from floods and a hurricane, meteorologists are warning that Northern California should be prepared for a third year of drought.

“The tilt is toward a drier than normal winter,” Brian Garcia of the National Weather Service said during a briefing last week for local water managers and stakeholders.

Garcia added: “It doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bone-dry winter.”

With this year’s rainfall totals running about a third of average annual figures, even a small increase would be welcome. But it probably will take at least a year of something approaching average annual precipitation to restore underground aquifers and refill the region’s reservoirs, which are quickly sinking toward historically low levels.

The biggest immediate concern is the upper Russian River, which is fed by Lake Mendocino and provides water for Cloverdale, Healdsburg and some prime Wine Country agricultural areas. Storage in the lake dipped below 20,000 acre-feet last week, according to Sonoma Water, which had set a goal of keeping the reservoir above that level through September.

Lake Sonoma, the region’s other major reservoir, is in a little better shape with 116,500 acre-feet of water. That’s enough water to meet about two years’ demand in the North Bay. But the shoreline keeps expanding. By the end of the year, storage is expected to drop to 100,000 acre-feet. That would trigger stricter conservation measures for about 600,000 residents of Sonoma and Marin counties.

For now, the target is a 20% reduction from last year’s water usage — and North Bay residents are beating the mark.

Sonoma Water released figures Monday showing a 22% year-over-year reduction in use through late August. Santa Rosa, which purchases 94% of its supply from Sonoma Water, is reporting a 22% reduction compared to July 2020, the most recent figures available. Marin Municipal Water District, which reports its savings on a weekly basis, recorded a 30% cut last week.

If Lake Sonoma falls below 100,000 acre-feet, as expected, the threshold rises to 30%.

Complicating conservation efforts, many people permanently reduced their usage during the last drought, mostly by removing lawns. For them, finding another 20% wouldn’t be easy. In recognition of their efforts, Santa Rosa is measuring savings on a cumulative basis rather than requiring each household to save 20%. So far, that’s been enough. We hope another dry winter won’t force the city to take stricter measures.

For homeowners looking to cut back, Santa Rosa is offering rebates for replacing grass and giving away low-flow shower heads, sink aerators and hose nozzles. The city also has a rebate program for commercial kitchens.

For those who aren’t cutting back yet, the city has reinstituted water waste patrols and created a website to report wasteful use (www.srcity.org/waterwaste). State water inspectors, meanwhile, are looking out for illegal diversions on the upper Russian River.

In the past, water savings often triggered rate increases to cover the fixed costs of maintaining delivery systems. A report going to the City Council on Tuesday says budget cuts were made in anticipation of current conservation orders and should allow the city to get through the current fiscal year without raising rates. We will be watching.

In this era of extreme weather, big winter storms could be on the horizon, but forecasters say ocean conditions are pointing toward another dry year. So, no one should ease up on water conservation. Indeed, we’ll probably have to save more. As Chris Godley, Sonoma County’s emergency services director, said, “We cannot wish this drought away.”

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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