The genesis of the Russian River estuary begins in two coastal range mountain valleys, the heart of Mendocino County. Both basins are known for what they produce — Redwood Valley for its smooth, full-bodied wine and Potter Valley for the sweetness of its pears and round, plump melons. But the current drought, exacerbated by human-caused climate change, is showcasing the region's precarious water situation.
The river, flowing downhill for 110 miles to the ocean, is the lifeblood of farms, and the main source of drinking water for 600,000 people across three counties. But without two reservoirs — Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma — and hundreds of water diversions during wet times, the river would be dry.
This region is unique in that no water comes from the Sierra Nevada snowmelt. The Russian River watershed sits isolated from the rest of the state, and in dry times, like this second year of drought, communities in the region are on their own.
Along this drying watershed are farms, wineries and family homes that rely on water from the managed river. Many of these businesses are concerned that a third year of drought could be in the cards.
“[This water] is being used by businesses, anybody who has a hotel or a winery, or a tasting room,” said Janet Pauli, a director with the Potter Valley Irrigation District, on the east fork of the river. “This is it, and this is what is so frightening this year.”
Official efforts are now underway to preserve what’s left in both Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma. Water managers are keeping more water in the reservoirs by cutting flows in half and experimenting with updated weather modeling to guide their decisions. Meanwhile, some communities are rationing water, and others are mandating water restrictions. The goal is to have enough water to weather a third, fourth or even fifth year without significant rain. But even with all that work, wells are dry, showers are short and crop yields may be smaller for the foreseeable future.
"I should be standing 40 feet underwater,” he said. “This is a historic moment . The hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting dryer.”
A New Way To Manage Reservoirs
Nick Malasavage, chief of operations and readiness division for the San Francisco district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, says Lake Mendocino could go dry by the end of the summer. He hopes 20,000 acre feet of water remains in the reservoir when the rainy season begins in October, but that could prove a challenge if people don't conserve. By comparison, downstream, Lake Sonoma has enough water in it for a few years.
“With so little rain in this watershed, our lake levels here at Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma are the lowest they've ever been for this time in the year,” he said.
Malasavage says his agency is changing how it manages Lake Mendocino. In the past, water was let out of the reservoir whether or not storms were in the forecast to make room for rainwater. The dam was built to help prevent flooding.
Increasingly, California's rainy season is more concentrated and its dry season prolonged, a result of climate change. The state now relies on big, soaking atmospheric rivers to make up the difference.
At Lake Mendocino, water managers used to regularly release water, independent of any forecasted storms. Now, they are piloting a new method. Conserve, wait until a major rainstorm is coming, and then let water out of the reservoir.
“We can sit on this water, watch the forecast and then when we see that big boomer of a storm coming, make the decision to put water into the river,” he said.
It seems simple, hold the water in the lake until a storm is somewhat guaranteed, but the feds will need to change their rule book for reservoir management, updating policies established more than half a century ago.
Malasavage says the program works. A trial run last year allowed the reservoir to hold 20% more water during 2020 than would have previously been allowed.
In an assessment, Sonoma and other agencies say the FIRO program should also be implemented at Lake Sonoma, too.
But funding for revamping water management here depends in part on whether President Biden’s budget proposal passes in September. During an infrastructure committee hearing last week, Lt. Gen. Scott Spellmon, with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, indicated it “should be complete within a year.”
Earlier this month, the California State Water Resources Control Board granted a request from Sonoma Water to cut flows out of Lake Sonoma by more than half to preserve water.
“We’re not going to run out of water in Lake Sonoma this year,” said Jay Jasperse, a chief engineer for Sonoma Water. “But if we don't watch it, and it's dry next year, or the year after, it'll be extremely rough. "
The board also approved emergency regulations to halt diversions for up to 2,400 ranchers, grape growers and other rural residents who pull water out of the river.
“Farmers call me and say, ‘What do I do? I've put tens and thousands of dollars into planting this new vineyard last year, and now I'm not going to have water to irrigate it,” said Elizabeth Salomone, general manager for the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District.
A Valley Adjusts To Drought
Potter Valley surrounds the eastern fork of the Russian River. The riverbed is all but dry with a 2 to 3 inch dribbling flow — thanks to water piped through a mountain from the Eel River, which is also in drought.
Pauli, a director for the Potter Valley Irrigation District, says without that water, the riverbed would be nothing but dust.
“It’s the lifeblood of this valley,” she said. “We couldn't grow the crops we do without this water supply.
“This drought is going to stress the system in a way that it has never been stressed before,” she says.
That stress is being felt in Potter Valley, where businesses, farms, wineries and family homes rely on the managed river. Pauli says everyone is wondering if the drought will persist for another year.
“If we can't adjust to a long-term drought, I'm not sure how people will end up thriving here,” she said. “The idea of a long-term drought is really frightening.”
One solution in Pauli’s district is to ration water for growers, depending on their acreage and crop.
“When you've used it all, you have no more water for this season,” she said. “Does it mean that everybody's going to have a normal year here in Potter Valley? Absolutely not. There will be long stretches of time in between irrigations depending on where you are in the valley.”
The Story in Redwood Valley
A sign in the middle of the town’s four-way stop reads, if not begs, residents to be on “ALERT! SAVE WATER NOW.”
The riverbed is dry except for a few lonely ponds. Water is severely limited, and people must rely on a water supply that’s not guaranteed. The Redwood Valley County Water District limits water use to 55 gallons per person, per day — or about two loads of laundry in a new washing machine.
This is not the first water shortage in the area. The district imposed similar restrictions during the last drought and regularly purchases water from other water agencies, or wherever it's available and affordable.
Water rights for many growers who pull from the river have been eliminated this year in the valley, known for its superior wine grapes. Martha Barra, owner of Barra wines is thankful her farm stores rainwater in ponds on her 350 acres, where she grows award-winning wine grapes. The water trickles down the mountains above her property and collects in ponds.
She says she has enough stored water to irrigate sparingly, but her most-prized Petite Sirah on a mountain nearby has no water. She’s purchasing $14,000 worth of water to be trucked from a nearby mine to water those grapes.
She's growing the same variety lower down along the valley floor, but these vines have less fruit because of two years of dry conditions and an untimely frost last fall.
“[They] just doesn't look as healthy as all the rest of the ranch,” she said. “There'll be a crop. It just won't be four-ton to the acre like it usually is.”
Barra’s family has been making wine since 1999. The little rain last year meant that some of her vines produced fewer grapes. She ended up watering the vines less to stretch out the water in her ponds. As a result, her grape harvest shrunk by 20%.
“The roots of the vines just didn't get that good soaking that would make the healthy vines,” she said. “This is a second year. Now, if we go into our third year, it's gonna be really, really critical.”
An Emotional Roller Coaster
The Russian River Watershed is stressed. Cities along the river either have mandatory water restrictions or are ramping them up. Healdsburg has a mandatory 40% water restriction, while Petaluma and Sonoma both have a 25% mandatory restriction. Santa Rosa has a voluntary 20% restriction.
A majority of Santa Rosa’s water comes from the Russian River via Sonoma Water. Peter Martin, deputy director of water resources for Santa Rosa, says the city’s voluntary restrictions will likely become mandatory as the drought worsens.
“Certain activities are definitely gonna be prohibited — water upon request at restaurants, requirements on when you can irrigate and we're going to be out there messaging,” he said.
With the last drought and deadly wildfires in recent memory, Martin says residents are taking this drought seriously. His department is inundated with requests for help on how to make homes and yards water efficient.
“Over 500 calls a month for folks requesting services," he said. "Typically, that's around 80.”
The city already pays overtime for about 10 staff members, like Jason Leef, to catch water wasters. They drive around looking for oversaturated lawns and water running down streets.
On a recent shift, Leef spotted five water wasters. So far, he says crews have inspected about 30% of the city.
“I'm looking for any kind of water running off hard surfaces, coming down the sidewalk into the gutter pan, broken sprinkler heads, just any kind of excessive watering,” he said.
Every time he spots a water waster, he fills out a warning, what he describes as an "oops ticket." Later, the city reaches out to the homeowner to help them fix any leaks. But if the homeowner doesn’t respond, as a last resort the city can turn their water off.
“We don't want to see that,” Leef said. “We're just trying to help this customer, because that's excessive.”
Preventing water waste is critical because a quarter-inch pipe can leak as much as 30 gallons a minute, he adds.
“It can add up very quickly, especially if you don't know about it,” he said.
Leef says wasting water isn’t an option when what’s being wasted could be saved in case a third year of drought happens.
For server Varina Richter, encouraging patrons to save water is now part of her job. Dierk’s Parkside Cafe in Santa Rosa requires customers to fill their own glasses using a water jug in the middle of the restaurant.
“I've noticed a big difference in the water that we're saving from people getting up to get their own,” she said. “I have had a few people yell at me. One guy thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I could get him a coffee and a mimosa, but not a water.”
Richter has lived in the area her whole life and says she is doing as much as she can to conserve because dry times aren’t just about less water, it's also about the risk of fires.
“Last year, my dad almost lost his home four times,” she said. “It's definitely like an emotional roller coaster, and seeing how bad things are right now is very scary.”
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