New Russian River cuts imposed when Sonoma County officials warn of worsening drought

Several hundred ranchers, winemakers, tribes, landowners, and community water suppliers, including the city of Healdsburg, were barred on Friday from exercising some of their water rights from the Russian River due to supply restrictions due to incessant drought is likely to get worse, officials say.

The third round of reductions imposed by the State Council for Water Control was driven by drastic reductions in the water diversions of the Eel River, which are critical to increasing dwindling storage in Lake Mendocino, which in turn feeds the Russian River.

The water council also formally suspended a new voluntary sharing agreement that allowed some of those with older and “senior” water rights to share water with those whose rights have been curtailed. According to state water officials, there is no longer enough water available to run the system.

During a virtual drought town hall hosted by Sonoma County on Thursday, local officials pointed out the grim possibility that current circumstances may, in retrospect, pretty much look like the good old days within the next year.

“The bottom line, upfront and again, is that we need to keep conserving water,” said supervisor James Gore, chairman of the board of supervisors. “… The water saved now is water that we can use later.”

Climate indications signal that another dry winter could be expected, at least until January, adding urgency to the need to conserve and prepare for what Sonoma County Director of Emergency Management Christopher Godley described as “an unfolding disaster. very slowly but very significantly for our county. ”

“We think there is a good chance that this multi-year drought we are in now extends into 2023,” Godley said, “and obviously each year worse than the previous one, so next year we could have more significant impacts than we do. we are currently facing “.

With total rainfall in three drought years already short for an entire winter, the region already has a deficit from which it will take years to recover, he said.

Underground aquifers need to be refilled, storage tanks and natural water bodies need to be replenished, and drought-affected vegetation needs time to recover.

Individual wells and water supplies are also expected to run a greater risk of failing without significant rainfall, Godley said, despite what has been a relatively mild summer so far.

A county drought task force, whose members represent local towns, water districts, groundwater sustainability districts, resource agencies and others, doubled this month, Godley said.

It is also expected to take a more operational stance, ensuring that contingency plans are in place for large and small water systems and developing risks and assessments and long-term plans to ensure drinking water solutions are identified in the event of a drought. long-term and systems failure.

This includes identifying resources, such as grant opportunities through state and federal agencies, Godley said.

“We think there will really be a need to bring more solutions to people suffering from drought, especially when we start to see the impact on water systems and wells,” he said.

A task force that worked primarily to understand the scale of the problem will need to take action, he said.

Meanwhile, Lake Mendocino’s storage level has decreased by about 1,000 acre feet, or 2%, in the past week, thanks to reduced flows from the Eel River through Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s decommissioned Potter Valley power plant. ., which drains water into the East Fork Russian River and the reservoir near Ukiah.

Philip Dutton, senior engineer with the state water council’s Division of Water Rights, said deviations have dropped from 75 or 80 cubic feet per second to 5 cfs under federal regulators’ clearance to PG&E last week. to help preserve the water storage of the River Eel in Pillsbury Lake.

The council of state previously reduced the rights for 260 users and reduced the rights for another 326. It has now reduced the rights for 671 users, about two-thirds of them in the upper river watershed upstream of Healdsburg and Dry Creek, where the releases of Lake Sonoma complement the flows of the river.

Some water rights holders have multiple claims. So, although nearly 1,000 water rights are limited, fewer entities are affected.

Healdsburg, for example, holds six water rights, all but one reduced, preparing the community for major conservation demands, as was the case last year.

The city has some good news recently, however, in awarding a federal grant of more than $ 6 million through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities program to be applied to an estimated 8.6 aquifer recharge and well recovery project. million dollars aimed at increasing the city’s water supply perhaps 60 million gallons annually.

The project still requires exploratory drilling, but offers the hope of using at least one of three potential city-owned sites to drill very deep wells for the injection of water to dig underground when it is abundant, said Patrick Fuss, chief engineer. of the city of Healdsburg.

“The city’s water supply right now comes exclusively from surface water,” which is subject to reduction during dry summers, Fuss said.

Completed, the new project “would be a great improvement given our situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Windsor provides all Sonoma County residents with access to the gas station through which its citizens can obtain up to 300 gallons of free recycled wastewater for use in outdoor irrigation.

There is paperwork involved and limitations on how the water is used – not bathing, drinking or cooking, for example – but it’s a way to keep plants alive without using drinking water that needs to be urgently stored, officials said. .

More information is available at townofwindsor.com/1380/Residential-Fill-Station-Program.

You can contact staff writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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