Gazette Article: 2013 sees worst drought (January, 2014)

Rain, rain, come today, river streams too dry these days……
Why must a threatened water crisis be necessary for agencies to get serious about mandatory water conservation? As this article is written, less than two weeks remain in 2013 and Santa Rosa has experienced barely more than 8” of rain for the entire year, compared to the usual average of 32”. (West County averages are generally almost double that amount, yet area trends are comparable as indicated by extremely low reservoir levels.)

According to San Francisco Chronicle article on Nov. 10, 2013, entitled “California on course for driest year on record”, Arthur Hinojosa, chief of hydrology and flood operation for the California Department of Water Resources said that all state reservoirs were well below their carrying capacity. “Generally speaking , it has been dry across the state, and it has been remarkably dry where …. the bulk of the water storage is,” he said and, “…most operators plan on multiyear dry years, but nobody plans on as dry as we’ve seen.”

Reservoir levels going down….
According to newsletter released by Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) in mid-December, Lake Mendocino is critically low at 29,020 acre feet (AF) compared to water supply pool of 68,400 AF. (Last year at this time, December rains had been so intense that the Army Corps of Engineers released about 24,000 AF from Coyote Dam because reservoir levels were so high that dam safety was a concern. No one could predict at that point the total lack of precipitation for the remaining winter and spring as we cannot now predict when rain will return.)

Lake Sonoma serving the lower river is currently in better shape at 170,691 AF out of 245,000 AF water supply pool, although releases are limited by consideration for juvenile salmonids being flushed away in Dry Creek if flows are too high or too fast.

No signs of heavy rain as yet…..
Current reservoir levels will go nowhere but down unless we get major rainfall in the next four months. At an extreme weather conference last summer organized by SCWA, meteorologists said there were no clear atmospheric signs of extreme weather events until possibly next spring (2014).

Santa Rosa and the general area has had considerable rainfall variability over the years. 2007 through 2009 were considered drought years, and average rainfall in Santa Rosa for that time was 21.53”. (2010 rainfall averaged 44.2”, 2011 was 25.23”, and 2012 was 36”.) Only in 2009, the third year of a drought, did water contractors implement mandatory conservation on order by the State Water Board. Water use dropped considerably that year as evidenced by contractor water purchases and reservoir levels were sustained at a manageable level partly due to a cool summer and low water use. Some contractors supplanted lost water supplies by drawing on local groundwater resources.

(Mandatory conservation in this context consists of the application of tiered rates where users pay more money at each tier of use. In dire situations, service could be cut off at predetermined level, but that has not been proposed, or even implemented to our knowledge. Higher costs usually motivate customers to more seriously constrain use.)

More mandatory conservation needed….
Russian River water sales by SCWA during summer months when water use is generally at its highest, (to major contractors) were 17,356 AF in 2009, 20,510 AF in 2012, and 19,408 AF in 2013. (AF = about 325,000 gallons) While contractors appeared to make some conservation strides with the 20 Gallon Challenge in 2013 (when compared to 2012), they still purchased more water than 2009 when mandatory conservation took place.

RRWPC and supporters pushed hard for mandatory conservation in early 2013, but to no avail. The State and SCWA focused on a voluntary program entitled 20 Gallon Challenge. This program involved massive advertising to the public on how to save water and money, and offered a chance to win a front loading washing machine by those who signed up. For the amount of effort put into the program, the actual water use savings were not clearly documented and seemed disappointing. Recently, in seeming contradiction, SCWA’s fiscal officer reported that there was an 18% increase in water sales last year. The discrepancy between the lower summer water use and the higher annual sales was never fully explained. Since highest water use is in summer, it doesn’t make sense.

Many citizens are conserving on their own and deserve full credit for taking it upon themselves not only to do the right thing for the environment (the goal should be to sustain our water supplies, NOT gobble them up when plentiful, and suffer the rest of the time.) but also save money while they are helping to protect the environment for the future.

SCWA’s role in pushing conservation puts them in a conflicted position because they have a strong motive for not saving the resource. Their funds rely on selling water, which is their business. If they don’t sell enough water, they have serious problems funding their staff and other operation and maintenance expense.

State water resources managed poorly….
Even with normal rainfall, the State’s water resources are drying up from over use. We are the only state in the country that doesn’t regulate groundwater. Vineyards, gravel mining, and other activities have been causing depletion for years. There are so many straws in the river that when supplies are short, the pain of going without becomes more intense. For quite awhile, SCWA had encouraged contractors to augment their short supplies of river water with ground water supplies. Now that remedy has fallen out of favor with the State and they are turning more to wastewater reuse which has its own conundrum, and is another story about which we have written extensively and will write more.

It’s hard to know at this point how this will play out next summer. SCWA has appealed to State Board to allow drastic cuts to Lake Mendocino releases. (We just now received Agency’s appeal to the State proposing major changes in determining lowered flows for 2014. We need to study this 32 page document before making comments. It should not alter any of the statements in this article however.)

If the severe drought continues, we will all suffer and will be called upon to consider our water use much differently. This may ultimately result in specific water allocations for each property with cut offs when limit is reached.

Pray for rain……