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Russian River on the brink: Lifeblood of North Coast imperiled by deepening drought

Mary Callahan, PRESS DEMOCRAT

Two winters ago, the Russian River was a swollen, chocolate-brown mass, full from bank to bank as it surged toward the Pacific Ocean, gathering runoff from sodden hillsides and frothing creeks amid torrential rains.

The floods of late February 2019 were the worst in two decades. They sent roiling water into communities along the river’s lower reaches in Sonoma County. Thousands of residents were displaced, restaurants were damaged and inns shuttered mere months before the summer tourist season. The losses would amount to tens of millions of dollars.

Now, shriveled by another historic drought, the same river cuts a languid, narrow path through a parched landscape — a slender ribbon of water stretching from inland Mendocino County to Healdsburg, where it is widened with a shot of cool reservoir water from Dry Creek before winding west to the sea.

The lifeblood of Sonoma, Mendocino and northern Marin counties, the river provides drinking water for more than 600,000 people. It is a refuge for imperiled fish and supports a thriving recreational economy. Much of the region’s $12-plus billion wine industry wouldn’t be here without it.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/news/russian-river-on-the-brink-lifeblood-of-north-coast-imperiled-by-deepening/

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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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Op-Ed: There is no drought

Editorial Board, LOS ANGELES TIMES

The years of steady and predictable water flow are over, and there is no sign of them coming back in our lifetimes. This is it. We have to build, and grow, and legislate, and consume for the world as it is, not as we may remember it.

If ‘drought’ means a period of dry years followed by a return to the norm, California is not in drought. The current climate is the norm.

Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency last month in Sonoma and Mendocino counties because of severe drop-offs in the winter rains that once had been counted on to fill reservoirs in the Russian River watershed, north of the San Francisco Bay Area. Like most other California reservoirs, those human-made lakes were built in the 20th century, an unusually wet period when compared with more than a thousand years of climate records reconstructed from studies of ancient tree rings and geological evidence.

The two formerly verdant counties were among the state’s hardest-hit regions in last year’s record-setting wildfire season that included the August Complex fires, which erupted not just because of years of intensifying summer heat drying out the trees and the ground beneath them but also, ironically, because of fierce summer storms and accompanying lightning. The August Complex followed the 2019 Kincade fire, which burned much of Sonoma County, and the 2018 Mendocino Complex fires, which at the time made up the state’s largest recorded wildfire incident. Before that was the 2017 Tubbs fire, which destroyed significant portions of Santa Rosa — following California’s wettest year on record. So much rain fell that winter that the ground could not absorb it all, yet the summer was so hot that it desiccated the forests.

Average out the sporadic flood years with the succession of dry ones and the numbers will tell you that California is getting as much precipitation as ever. There is no drought — not if drought means a decrease in total rainfall.

Read more at https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-05-06/editorial-there-is-no-drought

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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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Op-Ed: New priorities needed for California’s next drought

Darius Waiters and Brandon Dawson, CALMATTERS

As California faces another dry year, the state will have to decide whether to allow the violation of water quality standards in the Delta.

A series of key decisions await Gov. Gavin Newsom as the state heads back into a potential drought.

So this seems like the right moment to review what happened last time: Water was prioritized for big agriculture at the expense of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, endangered species and California communities. The State Water Board, in a review of the drought of 2014-15, found operations “not sustainable.”

We hope Newsom will prevent a repeat of that disaster by setting new priorities for a prolonged drought: Protecting the human right to water for drinking and sanitation, protecting public health for those who live adjacent to our rivers, and protecting endangered species.

Sadly, the operation plans for the State Water Project and federal Central Valley Project are starting to look like a repeat of 2014 and 2015. The projects plan to deliver 5 million acre-feet of water – 1 million from the SWP and 4 million from the CVP – from the Delta largely to corporate agribusinesses, regardless of the impacts to the Delta, people, fish and wildlife.

We are now hearing that the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation may petition the State Water Resources Control Board to waive water quality standards in the Delta again, as they did in 2014 and 2015.

Read more at https://calmatters.org/commentary/my-turn/2021/03/new-priorities-needed-for-californias-next-drought/

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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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Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development

Tyler Silvy, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL

Changes sought by grape growers to Sonoma County’s ordinance governing vineyard development are set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with proposed revisions that county leaders say will streamline permitting and encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

The changes are meant to update the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, established in 2000. The rules have long been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests.

But the changes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supporters say, are a common-sense approach to adapting land use that will be better for the environment.

“In my mind, not only does this not weaken (the ordinance), but this increases it,” said Supervsior James Gore. “I want to see landowners and producers changing practices to less-intensive systems. And if we can streamline this process, and reduce the costs of permitting to do that, that is the ultimate win-win.”

The revisions call for greater leeway and eased rules for growers who are seeking to replant vineyards, including incentives for those who use less invasive methods. The changes also would adjust permitting costs and timelines.

The changes came about through a series of meetings over the past two years between grape growers and Supervisors Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

The original ordinance stemmed from a public push to prevent damaging erosion, tree removal and water pollution problems linked to vineyard operations, which now cover more than 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. In one case, a major landslide in 1998 caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden runoff. The rules have been revised at least three times since the initial ordinance.

The latest proposal emerged from discontent within the wine industry about the work of an an outside contractor the county uses to oversee the vineyard erosion rules.
Continue reading “Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development”

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Delta on the edge

Kurtis Alexander & Santiago Mejia, THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE

In a California landscape defined — and divided — by water, a single issue unites the people who live here: digging in against the tunnel

In spring and summer, when the skies are warm and the shadows thin, California’s snowy Sierra Nevada and southern Cascades unleash billions of gallons of fresh water each day, a melted bounty that nourishes the state’s mightiest rivers before converging slowly on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

Here, across a sun-baked plain of rickety towns and sprawling countryside, the cool water winds through streams and sloughs. It fills irrigation ditches that feed cornfields and vineyards. It flows through shallow bays flanked by wooden fishing piers and riverside homes. Finally, it’s pumped off to the sinks and showers of two-thirds of Californians, many giving little thought to where the water came from — and just how vulnerable the supply has become.

The delta is an unlikely frontier, and an even more improbable battleground. So close to the Bay Area, but apart. Hidden beyond freeways and tucked beneath the wide open of the Central Valley. Vital to the future, yet wrapped in the past.

This sleepy place, though, is waking, reluctantly and resoundingly, jolted by the state’s modern-day demand for water. Those who live here, where family farms span generations and a postman still delivers mail by boat, fear that looming changes could wipe out this singular slice of California and turn their figurative backwater into a literal one.

The stakes could hardly be higher. Gov. Gavin Newsom, like governors before him, wants to overhaul how water moves through the delta. He’s proposing a 30-mile tunnel that would streamline the delivery of water from the Sacramento River, a bid to halt the ongoing devastation of the delta’s wetlands and wildlife while ensuring its flows continue to provide for the rest of the state.

The pressures of climate change on water supplies have only increased the urgency to act. And the coronavirus pandemic and months of shelter-in-place orders haven’t slowed the planning. A tense situation is unfolding even as California’s attention is elsewhere.

Follow the roads through the delta and you’ll see the signs and stickers, on pickup trucks and bars, at cattle ranches and trailer parks, and next to bridges and boatyards: “No tunnel. Save our delta.”

The starkness of the choice laid out in the slogan is deliberate. Residents here not only see the project as a water grab, but worry the central force in their lives and livelihoods — the movement of fresh water — could be lost as the tunnel allows Silicon Valley, Southern California and the San Joaquin Valley’s vast agricultural industry to satisfy their thirst. President Trump’s insistence on shipping more water to big farms to the south has only added to the anxiety.

“The tunnel just isn’t good for the delta,” said Mark Morais, 70, owner of Giusti’s, a popular roadhouse serving pasta and steaks on checkerboard tablecloths in Walnut Grove, about 30 miles south of Sacramento. “If you divert the water, you’re going to have less for us.”

The communities in the region, which spreads across about 1,100 square miles in parts of five counties, rarely speak with one voice. Local farmers see these watery reaches as meant for agriculture. Those casting for bass and stripers prioritize fish. Boaters want open water. Longtime residents and recent retirees want to sip a cold drink along the waterside and gaze out at their share of California paradise.

Read more at: https://www.sfchronicle.com/projects/delta-on-the-edge/part-one/