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State authorities Thursday began notifying hundreds of water rights holders on the upper Russian River to stop diverting water from the drought-stricken watershed because there isn't enough supply to go around.

The unprecedented step affects 652 water rights issued after Feb. 19, 1954, held by dozens of growers and local water agencies, some of which rely on the river for their main supply. Many have other sources, however, that could help protect them through the dry season.

The order, which was dated Wednesday and takes effect immediately, was issued in letters sent out by the state Water Resources Control Board.

"Based upon the most recent reservoir storage and inflow projections, along with forecasts for future precipitation events, the state Water Board has determined that the existing water supply in the Russian River watershed is insufficient to meet the needs of all water rights holders," the state agency said in its letter.

The upper Russian River is the portion between Lake Mendocino and the river's confluence with Dry Creek near Healdsburg. The lower Russian River, which is fed by Lake Sonoma, is not affected by the order.

The move by the state is aimed at preserving supplies for senior water rights holders in the watershed, said George Kostyrko, public affairs director for the state Water Resources Control Board.

It follows similar action taken by the state to curtail diversions in the Sacramento River watershed and on the Scott River in Siskiyou County. It is the first such move on the Russian River.

Most of the affected users are farmers and agencies that provide drinking water. Many hold multiple rights, so the impacts of the order are not entirely clear. State law also prioritizes deliveries of drinking water, so municipal supplies are not set to be halted by the action but could be reduced as a result.

Most water agencies in the region already are urging or requiring cuts of 20 to 25 percent from domestic users.

The order does not affect water already impounded in privately owned reservoirs or in Lake Mendocino, built in the late 1950s.

However, those reservoirs cannot impound additional water, meaning agencies with rights to Lake Mendocino water will have to forego building up their supplies.

The two main holders of water rights to Lake Mendocino are the Sonoma County Water Agency and the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District.

Growers in the upper Russian River watershed may be affected differently depending on what kind of water rights they hold and their location.

Among the hardest hit are those whose water rights are the youngest and who have few other sources of irrigation water. That group includes growers in both Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

"It's very scary," said Mark Houser, vineyard manager at Hoot Owl Creek Vineyards and Alexander Valley Vineyards. He faces the prospect of losing use of his best-producing well because the state says it taps underflow from the river.

He expects his reservoir will run dry by July if he is unable to refill it, forcing him to dramatically curtail irrigation on 300 acres. Houser said he already is conserving where he can.

"If we don't get any water at all, these vines won't survive the summer and there won't be anything to harvest," he said. "I think total curtailment would ruin a lot of the wine industry."

Many have secondary supplies, though, that could get them through the dry season.

They include Mendocino County growers who have contracts with the Russian River flood control district for the 8,000 acre-feet it controls from Lake Mendocino.

The district, which serves about 40 farmers and seven municipal water districts, has joined other suppliers and cities, including Cloverdale and Healdsburg, in requiring cutbacks from its customers.

If the drought continues past November, the district's water supply will be "minimal," according to district manager Sean White.

Because of the drought, all of the Sonoma County Water Agency's right to 37,500 acre-feet of water in Lake Mendocino will likely go this year to maintain downstream flows for fish, said Don Seymour, the agency's principal engineer.

It was unclear Thursday how an additional 10,000 acre-feet of water from Lake Mendocino that was dedicated for farmers in Sonoma County has been allotted. That water right is controlled by the state, Seymour said.

Lake Mendocino currently holds about 51,000 acre-feet, a little less than half of its water supply capacity. An acre-foot of water is about 325,851 gallons.

There are about 1,250 water rights issued by the state on the Russian River above Healdsburg, according to the water board. A little more than half are in Mendocino County, officials said.

While it appears that Mendocino County farmers are likely to scrape by on minimal amounts of water, the fate of Sonoma County farmers is murky, at best.

"It's complicated," said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar. About 40 percent of all Sonoma County farmers have some kind of storage to hold water and 76 percent have wells, according to a survey he conducted in 2012 in connection with frost-protection efforts.

Some wells may be spared, but ones considered to be dependent on river underflow could be affected.

Houser, the vineyard manager, said he hopes the state will back off from the curtailments when they get Sonoma County's plan to reduce water use on its own.

The Water Agency has been working on conservation plans with farmers and wine grape organizations in an effort to ward off state intervention, but the plans have yet to be submitted to the state.

Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse said she had been hoping the state would wait for their proposal.

"I'm disappointed," she said.

State officials said they encourage water users to work together to reach local voluntary agreements.

The state water board also sent letters to people applying for 156 pending water rights on the upper Russian River, Kostyrko said.

More senior water rights holders, including those with riparian rights — to water flowing naturally through a property — also are expected to be affected in the near future, water regulators warned.

While riparian rights are some of the most senior, they cease to exist when natural stream flows disappear.

In very dry years, summer flows in the upper Russian River exist primarily because of water stored in Lake Mendocino, which is not "natural" and therefore unavailable to riparian rights holders unless they have separate contracts for that water.

"It's anticipated that an additional curtailment notice will be issued sometime in June to riparian water-right holders," Kostyrko said.

You can reach Staff Writer Glenda Anderson at 462-6473 or glenda.anderson@pressdemocrat.com.

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