Jackson Carter, 13, of Sebastopol encounters fellow paddlers in a canoe as he paddles in the floodwaters surrounding market district The Barlow after the Russian River crested its banks Feb. 28, 2019, in Sebastopol. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A delegation of mayors, climate scientists, water officials and energy leaders from Sonoma County are representing the Bay Area at this year's annual U.N. climate conference, known as COP27, underway in Egypt.
They are touting Sonoma County as one of the world’s testing grounds for big climate change solutions — including water-saving ideas and clean energy projects.
And they have a good argument to make. More than 85% of the electricity that powers homes and businesses in Sonoma County comes from renewable sources, according to county energy officials. Towns like Santa Rosa recycle 98% of their wastewater, and the Sonoma County Water Agency recently started monitoring the skies for catastrophic storms that could cause climate-induced flooding, using several radar units that predict flood risk with precision.
Earlier this year, Rohnert Park banned the building of new gas stations, a move meant to speed up the transition to electric vehicles. Jackie Elward, the city’s mayor, is in Egypt talking about that and what else Rohnert Park is doing to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that local adaptation solutions to climate change matter.
“We have been changing everything to follow the evolution of climate change,” she said. “As leaders, we are supposed to show people the way.”
Elward is from the Democratic Republic of Congo and will make her climate case on the world stage as an immigrant and Rohnert Park’s first Black mayor.
Sonoma County is dealing with its fair share of climate impacts: The same Russian River that flooded 3,000 homes and businesses in Guerneville in 2019 nearly dried up this summer after years of drought; since 2017, eight big wildfires have devastated neighborhoods around Santa Rosa and destroyed wineries.
Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Rogers will showcase his community, which is striding toward a fossil fuel-free economy after feeling “the sting of climate change.”
“We have boomeranged out of tragedy,” he said. “Our story is using the tragedy to build a better community and one that's going to be more responsive and be a part of addressing climate change.”
Sonoma Clean Power is the public power provider for both Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park. The power aggregator uses renewable energy as its default electricity, sourcing clean power for 87% of Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Geof Syphers, CEO for the agency, is not in Egypt but wants the team to relay a message to other local leaders: Take risks. Be a test kitchen for climate ideas.
“You don't want to design your trillion-dollar program and have it fall on its face,” he said. “A big part of what I want to pitch is learning from these experiments and encouraging other local governments to run those experiments.”
Sonoma's carbon-free water system wouldn’t have been possible without the Regional Climate Protection Authority, a Sonoma-wide collaboration that was established in 2009 with acountywidemindset for solving climate problems. It’s the state’s only regional climate authority; every city and agency in Sonoma County coordinates grants and other planning for climate protection and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
“That model is worth exploring and sharing with other communities that are looking for a way forward,” said Grant Davis, general manager of Sonoma Water.
Representatives from the water agency, which supplies water to more than 600,000 people, will also share in Egypt how they are adapting to atmospheric rivers — big storms that can cause extreme flooding. According to recent research from Bay Area scientists, these storms are expected to get up to 37% wetter by the end of the century.
The team will take part in a session on atmospheric rivers, including how the agency is providing reservoir operators with near-term climate forecasts to inform their management decisions using a program called forecast-informed reservoir operations, or FIRO.
“If you don't have enough atmospheric rivers in winter, you'll slide towards drought. If you have too many, and they're too big, you head towards flood,” said Marty Ralph, director of the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Oceanography. Ralph is attending the conference in Egypt, too.
Water managers at Lake Mendocino used to release water based on demand, independent of forecasted storms. Now, they mostly conserve and wait for a major rainstorm, releasing water from the reservoir at times when they know more is on the way.
The program “was able to save 20% of that reservoir’s capacity in a drought year because we were able to hold the water back when you know you don't have rain coming,” said Brad Sherwood, assistant general manager for Sonoma Water, who is also attending the global conference.
Congress allowed the agencies to pilot this technology — really a new way of thinking about water management — at Lake Mendocino. But the idea has spread, and reservoir operators across the West Coast are experimenting with it.
In partnership with agencies across the region and state, Sonoma Water is creating a Bay Area-wide system of radar units that can better predict the characteristics of a storm, called the Advanced Quantitative Precipitation Information system, funded by the California Department of Water Resources.
It is a regional system of low-level radar units located in fields and on mountaintops. When fully built and synced up, they will generate local information about how dumping rains could affect the flooding of burn scars, highways, towns, streams and rivers.
“We'll be able to help the community be prepared to, perhaps, evacuate, put up sandbags or perhaps weatherproof their houses,” said Dale Roberts, principal engineer for the agency.
The white radar units slowly spin, rising around 20 feet into the air and pointing up to the sky, looking like a cross between a mushroom and a spaceship. Agency officials want to understand a storm’s direction, moisture content and speed; they use the radar to hunt for rain that’s on its way within the next few hours.
Scientists can cross-reference that data against how fast streams or rivers are moving and other factors to forecast the severity of a storm on a community or highway. There are radar units in San José, Santa Rosa and Santa Cruz, but the scientists expect that number to grow to seven by the end of 2023, including one in the hills of Alameda County, one in San Mateo County, one facing the ocean in Marin County and another near Geyserville in Sonoma County.
“We want to give people a heads-up to start preparing for storms sooner than they would and before it's too late,” Roberts said.
Get the best of KQED’s science coverage in your inbox weekly.