PD Editorial: The new normal — more dry years than wet years

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.

We are living in an era of extremes.

While that may read like the start of an editorial about national politics, today’s topic is water. Open an almanac or turn to the weather page and you can find average annual rainfall figures. As for that “average” year — well, good luck finding one.

Here on the North Coast, we seem to whipsaw between wet years and dry years.

“We have floods and we have droughts, Supervisor David Rabbitt told the editorial board, “and there’s usually not much in between.”

This is a drought year, the second in a row, and it is shaping up to be the worst one in nearly four decades. Less than 13 inches of rain has fallen in Santa Rosa since Oct. 1. The average for this date is 35 inches. Reservoirs are low, and so is the Russian River.

There is mandatory water rationing in Cloverdale and Healdsburg and voluntary measures, for the moment, elsewhere in Sonoma and Marin counties. Please do your part.

But, believe it or not, the region’s water picture isn’t entirely bleak.

A new water management system at Lake Mendocino relies on sophisticated weather forecasting tools instead of a 60-year-old manual that dictated fixed water levels on specific dates. If the lake level was any higher, the spillways opened, regardless of the weather forecast.

The old system resulted in the release of 20,000 acre-feet of badly needed water during the last drought. The new approach, which required congressional approval, preserved 11,000 acre-feet that is available to ease the impacts of this year’s drought for people living along the upper Russian River.

Flexible reservoir management, informed by climate science, could expand to other parts of the state, including the Feather River, Orange County and Lake Sonoma — “the big bonanza for us,” said Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water.

Sonoma Water, meanwhile, is preparing to reopen as many as three groundwater wells in the Santa Rosa Plain dating to the record 1976-77 drought. In the near term, the wells can provide additional water for local users. In the longer term, Davis says they will be the cornerstones of a groundwater recharge program.

That’s where the wet years come in. Sonoma County’s extreme winter weather event is an “atmospheric river,” a narrow band of concentrated moisture that can produce enormous amounts of rain in a relatively short period of time.

“We want to get that water and get it into the pipe and put it into the ground as a deposit in our rainy-day fund and use it years like this,” Davis said.

There is about $10 million in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s budget proposal to expand weather forecasting and reservoir management systems to increase surface storage and to identify opportunities to recharge aquifers, augmenting implementation of California’s long-overdue decision to regulate groundwater extraction.

“That’s our next reservoir,” Rabbitt said. “We’re not going to build a new Lake Sonoma in this county. We don’t need another Lake Sonoma. We have plenty of room under our feet.”

The saving and storage programs are intended to ensure that Sonoma County has enough water for years to come to meet the needs of residents, including population growth, agriculture and industry. But in this year without rainfall, water is in short supply. All of us need to save.

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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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