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Limbo for Mendocino County water transfer clouds outlook for key Russian River source

Mary Callahan, PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Russian River’s sprawling, manmade delivery system for drinking and irrigation water has for decades relied on a share of the flow in the Eel River, miles to the north in Lake County.

In years past, up to 22 million gallons have been siphoned from the Eel through a system of pumps, pipes and reservoirs and sent south into the East Fork of the Russian River through a mile-and-a-half tunnel blasted into a mountain more than a century ago.

But the future of that cog in the Russian River machine, long seen as critical for farmers, ranchers and rural residents reliant on the river in Mendocino County and northern Sonoma County, is now in limbo.

The water transfer also has generated hydroelectricity as it passed through a small powerhouse in rural Potter Valley and on into Lake Mendocino near Ukiah.

Efforts by federal fisheries regulators to bolster declining salmon and steelhead runs in the Eel River have slashed those diversions in half since 2007. And the drought cut those diversions by another fifth this year, as water regulators seek to maintain supplies in Lake Pillsbury, formed by a dam across the Eel River.

They may be eliminated permanently in the future as a result of PG&E’s decision not to renew its license for the 113-year-old Potter Valley powerhouse when it expires next year, leaving the state of all water transfers from the Eel River uncertain.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/limbo-for-mendocino-county-water-transfer-clouds-outlook-for-key-russian-ri/

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Lower Russian River flows to be halved under state order to preserve stored supplies

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Sonoma County water agency received permission Monday to immediately cut stream flows in the lower Russian River by more than half in an effort to conserve water stored in Lake Sonoma.

Instream flows in the upper river, above Dry Creek, which is fed by releases from Lake Sonoma, already are being maintained at a very low threshold to keep as much water as possible in Lake Mendocino, the smaller of the two reservoirs.

The state decision means Sonoma Water, the county agency, and its contractors — the cities of Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Rohnert Park, Windsor, Petaluma and Cotati, and the Valley of the Moon, Marin Municipal and North Marin water districts — will have to use 20% less water from the Russian River, as well.

Both lakes Sonoma and Mendocino reservoirs are their lowest levels ever for this early in the year, with the warmest, driest months still ahead.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/lower-russian-river-flows-to-be-halved-under-state-order-to-preserve-stored/

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State water regulators to consider emergency limits on as many as 2,400 Russian River users

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

State regulators are considering sweeping drought emergency rules that would let them suspend the diversion of water from the Russian River by as many as 2,400 homes, businesses, municipal agencies and other users. The proposal, which would cover both the upper and lower parts of the watershed, could greatly extend the list of more than 900 water suppliers, agricultural producers and property owners already notified there has been too little rainfall for them to exercise their water rights this year.

The draft regulation goes before the state water board next Tuesday and could account for substantial monthly savings, depending when diversions are limited, Erik Ekdahl, deputy director of the state water board’s Division of Water Rights, said during a virtual Sonoma County Town Hall on the drought last week.

Those affected would include residents of both Sonoma and Mendocino counties, a region singled out by Gov. Gavin Newsom in April for being at particular risk of water shortage after two dry years because of its dependence on a reservoir system subject to rapid depletion in the absence of regular rainfall.

With storage in Lake Mendocino, the smaller of the reservoirs, diminishing by the day, state regulators are hoping they can slow its consumption by reserving withdrawals for those with the oldest, most senior water claims and, potentially, curtailing even them.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/state-water-regulators-to-consider-emergency-limits-on-at-least-1600-russi/

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North Bay braces for water cuts with reservoirs at record lows after second dry winter

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Anyone paying attention to the season’s paltry rainfall has seen it coming for some time, but recent pronouncements about the state of the region’s water supply make it plain: hard times lie ahead.

Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino are both at their lowest levels ever for this time of year — after two consecutive years in which the combined rainfall totals barely measure up to a single average year.

State water regulators have issued letters notifying more than 700 vineyards, domestic suppliers, farmers and other entities with water rights for the Russian River that their diversions may be curtailed.

Dairy farmers in southern Sonoma County already are trucking thousands of gallons a day to their parched lands, and more than a billion gallons of recycled wastewater normally delivered each year to other agricultural users is simply unavailable, owing to low rainfall and diminished production.

And though it’s only the beginning of April, with months still to go before summer even starts, officials say the overall picture suggests mandated conservation measures aren’t so much a matter of if, but when.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/north-bay-braces-for-water-cuts-with-reservoirs-at-record-lows-after-second/

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High-tech forecasting model scores scientific win at Lake Mendocino, showing promise for western reservoirs

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sandbars are spreading across rain-starved Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah that is 35 feet lower than it was a year ago, a grim wintertime sight for the second major source of water for more than 655,000 people in Sonoma, Mendocino and Marin counties.

But the situation would be considerably worse without the payoff from a six-year, $50 million project applying high-tech weather forecasting to management of the reservoir behind Coyote Valley Dam built on the East Fork of the Russian River in 1958.

Thanks to the project, which replaces an inflexible dam operations manual with meteorological science unknown six decades ago, there is 20% more water — nearly 12,000 acre feet — now in Lake Mendocino as the North Bay teeters on the brink of drought.

“Imagine what would have been without this,” said Grant Davis, head of Sonoma Water, the agency that supplies water to 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents and another 55,000 people from Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley to Healdsburg.

A 141-page report released Thursday by Sonoma Water and seven partners provides “proof of concept” for Lake Mendocino’s Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations program, known as FIRO, Davis said.

The program’s success comes as climate change is “exacerbating the feast-or-famine nature of precipitation,” according to Sonoma Water, complicating work in its field and imperiling the supplies that go to tens of millions of residents and agricultural users across the water-scarce western United States.
Continue reading “High-tech forecasting model scores scientific win at Lake Mendocino, showing promise for western reservoirs”

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Advance in storm forecasting allows Lake Mendocino to hold more winter runoff

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Dam operators are planning to store nearly 4 billion extra gallons of water this winter in Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah that plays a critical role in providing water for residents, ranchers and fish along the upper Russian River and to communities in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Retaining that much more water — enough for about 97,000 people for a year — comes about as a four-year and $10 million program, proven in computer models but not in practice, gets its first field test.

The program, blending high-tech weather forecasting with novel computer programming, is intended to pinpoint the arrival of rain-rich atmospheric rivers that have been both a drought-busting blessing and a flood-causing curse to the Russian River region.

It evolved from a searing lesson water managers got six years ago, when they released more than a third of the reservoir’s allowed capacity in anticipation of storms that never arrived. Then the state’s prolonged drought set in.

Under the new program, called Forecast Informed Reservoir Operation, or FIRO, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoir, will hold onto the extra water as long as no atmospheric river is imminent. Should a drenching storm loom, that water will be released, enabling Lake Mendocino to capture the new runoff and control flooding, the mission it was built to serve 60 years ago.

The goal is to head into summer with as much water in Lake Mendocino as possible. Army Corps officials, the phalanx of scientists who developed FIRO at a branch of UC San Diego and Sonoma Water, are confident it will work.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9014821-181/advance-in-storm-forecasting-allows

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Advance in storm forecasting allows Lake Mendocino to hold more winter runoff

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Dam operators are planning to store nearly 4 billion extra gallons of water this winter in Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah that plays a critical role in providing water for residents, ranchers and fish along the upper Russian River and to communities in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Retaining that much more water — enough for about 97,000 people for a year — comes about as a four-year and $10 million program, proven in computer models but not in practice, gets its first field test.

The program, blending high-tech weather forecasting with novel computer programming, is intended to pinpoint the arrival of rain-rich atmospheric rivers that have been both a drought-busting blessing and a flood-causing curse to the Russian River region.

It evolved from a searing lesson water managers got six years ago, when they released more than a third of the reservoir’s allowed capacity in anticipation of storms that never arrived. Then the state’s prolonged drought set in.

Under the new program, called Forecast Informed Reservoir Operation, or FIRO, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the reservoir, will hold onto the extra water as long as no atmospheric river is imminent.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9014821-181/advance-in-storm-forecasting-allows

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Intercepted Lake Mendocino boat had invasive quagga mussels aboard

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

DNA analysis confirmed this week that stowaway shellfish intercepted at the Lake Mendocino boat ramp early this month were invasive quagga mussels, as initially feared.

The finding by state Fish and Wildlife personnel validates just how close the region came to confronting a destructive scourge. Infestation by the nonnative bivalve could have had profound implications for wildlife and recreation in the lake, as well as water-supply infrastructure serving more than 600,000 residents in Sonoma and northern Marin counties, officials said.

But for the moment, it appears the crisis was averted, thanks to a sweet-faced, blond Labrador named Noah. The mussel-sniffing dog and his handler have been showered with gratitude from recreational boaters since they detected tiny quagga mussels aboard a vessel about to be launched into Lake Mendocino on June 2.

“It’s been amazing, the community response,” said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which contracts with Central Valley-based Mussel Dogs for weekend boat inspections at both lakes Sonoma and Mendocino. “The mussel inspection team has gotten nothing but praise and support from the community.”

Fish and Wildlife personnel still are trying to determine where the vessel, owned by a Marin County man, had been used before Lake Mendocino, and if any other water bodies may inadvertently have been exposed, said Martha Volkoff, environmental program manager for the agency’s habitat conservation planning branch.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8483530-181/intercepted-lake-mendocino-boat-had

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Decades-old project to raise Lake Mendocino dam gets a boost

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

In early 2014, after fewer than 8 inches of rain had fallen in the upper reaches of the Russian River the previous year, Lake Mendocino dwindled to a third of its capacity, exposing acres of bare ground, and Mendocino County supervisors declared a drought emergency.

“How many times do we have to knock ourselves on the head before we get it?” then-Supervisor John Pinches asked during the board meeting. “Folks, we’ve got to come up with another water supply.”

The irony, in retrospect, is that a major addition to the reservoir near Ukiah — boosting its capacity by 25 billion gallons — had been planned by the Army Corps of Engineers more than 50 years ago. But with California in the midst of a five-year drought, the plan was gathering dust on the shelves of the federal dam-building agency.

A coalition of local agencies, including Mendocino County and the city of Ukiah, already had paid $617,000 toward a feasibility study that would determine if the benefits of raising Coyote Valley Dam by 36 feet justified the cost of about $320 million.

But without more money, Corps officials said in 2014 the study could not move forward.

Now, with the prospect of drought and hotter weather considered California’s “new normal” due to climate change, new hopes have arisen for the relief Pinches and others have sought: More water in Lake Mendocino to quench the needs of residents, farmers and fish along 75 miles of the Russian River from Redwood Valley to Healdsburg and contribute to the Sonoma County Water Agency’s deliveries to 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8431501-181/decades-old-project-to-raise-lake

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PG&E plan to sell Mendocino County hydropower project unsettles North Coast water system

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PG&E intends to sell a remote Mendocino County hydropower project at an auction this fall, a decision that means little in terms of its meager electrical output but sends a ripple through the water system that supplies cities, residents and ranchers from Ukiah south through much of Sonoma County and into northern Marin County.

Many of the more than 600,000 customers and residents who get their water from the Russian River have no idea how much of it flows from the Potter Valley Project’s two dams on the Eel River and through an aging powerhouse in the out-of-the-way valley about 20 miles north of Ukiah.

There’s no indication yet that PG&E’s divestiture from the 110-year-old project — or the alternative of transferring it to local control — would jeopardize the annual diversion of more than 20 billion gallons of Eel River water into the Russian River. But the utility’s announcement opens the door to changes water experts have anticipated and unsettles communities across two counties that rely on it.

“The water supply needs to be protected,” said Janet Pauli, a longtime Potter Valley rancher and irrigation district official. “It’s very serious. There’s no way around it.”

Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah, depends on the Potter Valley diversion to supply dry-season Russian River flows down to Healdsburg and supplement the supply the Sonoma County Water Agency delivers to customers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Most is taken from water stored in Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir.

But without the diversion, Lake Mendocino would shrivel in size in the driest years ahead, diminishing flows in the upper Russian River, a local government study found.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8314850-181/pge-plan-to-sell-mendocino