PD Editorial: Enjoy the rain, but don’t expect it to last

It isn’t a 10-figure lottery prize, but some early November rain feels like a jackpot after another hot and dry summer on the North Coast.|

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.

It isn’t a 10-figure lottery prize, but early November rain feels like a jackpot after another hot and dry summer on the North Coast.

Enjoy the moisture, but don’t be lulled into thinking the water crisis has passed.

This week’s storm isn’t a drought-buster, and climate scientists warn that La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean could deliver a fourth consecutive winter of below average precipitation for Northern California.

When you’re stepping around puddles and hunting for misplaced umbrellas, you might not remember that a year ago, Santa Rosa already had 11.73 inches of precipitation. In the coastal hills, Cazadero was approaching 15 inches a month into the 2021-22 rain season.

But the storm door slammed shut early — just 6 inches of rain fell in Santa Rosa over the last nine months of the water year. The result of all those dry months is reflected in the latest reservoir report.

“Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest water storage reservoir, has reached the lowest level in its history after three years of punishing drought with no end in sight,” Staff Writer Mary Callahan wrote in Tuesday’s paper.

The 39-year-old lake, a primary source of potable water for 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties, currently holds 102,500 acre-feet of water — far below its early-November average of 182,000 acre-feet.

Lake Mendocino, which supplies northern Sonoma County, is slightly better off. At 37,400 acre-feet, the Ukiah reservoir is about 70% of its 52,500-acre-foot average for this time of year.

Sonoma Water officials say there’s enough water to get through another dry year, but no one knows how long the drought will last — or how much climate change will upend historic weather patterns.

Press Democrat readers routinely ask why new housing is allowed when they are being directed to conserve water. It’s a fair question, and local officials need to do a better job of explaining.

When we have asked, local officials point to improved weather forecasting, increased recycling and water-efficient appliances as factors in a decline in per capita consumption that has stretched supplies.

Water planners anticipate that storms may become more intense though less frequent, with climate change fueling atmospheric rivers like those that produced heavy rain last fall. Using injection wells, Sonoma Water plans to divert high flows from the Russian River and pump it into underground aquifers for use during dry months.

Moreover, with the county’s population increasing just 1% over the past decade, many of the new housing units are likely to be occupied by people who already are here, living with relatives or roommates, and already using water.

The state plans to increase supplies through stormwater capture, recycling wastewater and desalinating seawater and brackish groundwater. To meet its goals, however, the state also must account for agriculture, which uses 80% of California’s developed water.

These are medium- and long-term strategies. Right now, reservoirs are shrinking, and we’re still in the grips of a drought. So enjoy this week’s rain, hope for more — and don’t waste a drop of water.

(Sonoma County is hosting an online town hall at 4 p.m. Thursday, featuring experts from the state Department of Water Resources and Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The session will be streamed on Zoom and the county’s Facebook page.)

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

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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