PD Editorial: In this bleak water year, don’t waste a drop

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.

Water, water everywhere — if only.

As for the next line of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem hits a little too close to home: “nor any drop to drink.”

After two dry winters, and with significant precipitation unlikely for — at best — several months, Lake Sonoma is down to about a third of its capacity. The Russian River — the primary source of drinking water for 600,000 people in the North Bay — is running low and slow. Some of its tributaries are dry.

North Bay drought veterans know what that means: taking shorter showers and letting the lawn turn brown.

One by one, cities and other water regulators are tightening the tap. Waters rights holders on the upper Russian River were told to shut off their pumps. In Petaluma, residents must reduce their usage by 25%. Healdsburg residents are under orders to cut back by 40%. Rohnert Park, Sonoma and Cloverdale have their own conservation measures. Santa Rosa is poised to switch from voluntary savings to a mandatory 20% reduction when the City Council meets on Tuesday.

The emergency orders don’t apply to private well owners, but the drought hasn’t spared them. Farmers are fallowing land and ranchers are culling their herds. Water tables have fallen 5 to 15 feet and, as Staff Writer Guy Kovner reports in Sunday’s special Insight section on the drought, many rural residents worry about their wells running dry.

“I already bail the bathtub and spot water select plants by bucket,” Theresa Melia of Graton said.

Ripple effects of the drought include a steep decline in one of California’s primary sources of power — hydroelectricity. Without the usual snowpack to fill the state’s reservoirs, there isn’t enough water to keep the turbines spinning.

In a normal year, hydro accounts for more than 15% of the state’s power. This year, the outlook is bleak. Hydro power is down 40%, according to a Bloomberg report, and the Sacramento Bee warned that the power plant at Lake Oroville could be closed for the first time ever, a result of record low water levels.

When demand for electricity outstrips the supply, as it did during a hot spell last summer, Cal ISO, the state’s grid manager, can order rolling blackouts. Dry conditions raise the risk of fires, a threat that also can result in preemptive outages.

An average winter may be enough to restore water levels in the region’s reservoirs, but no one should be lulled into a false sense of security. California endured its worst drought on record from 2012 to 2016, but the respite that followed was short. We must acknowledge that our climate has changed. Rainfall patterns have changed — dry years come more frequently, and wet years deliver superabundant storms. The watchword is unpredictable.

For water managers, the challenge is capturing water when it’s available. Sonoma Water, which supplies cities and water districts in the North Bay, is developing plans to recharge underground aquifers and working with the Army Corps of Engineers to update management protocols for Warm Springs Dam so more water can be stored in rainy years.

Those are medium- and long-term strategies. A crisis is upon us now. Most people found ways to save water during the last drought. Many kept up their thrifty ways when the rains returned. No one knows when this dry spell will end, so everyone must do their part now. We can’t afford to waste a drop.

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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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