Sonoma County Gazette, November, 2014: The Drought

Urban Conservation Report Card:
20% goal not met….

Who’s paying attention?
Most people served by public water systems are accustomed to turning on the tap and water flows out. Busy urban dwellers seldom ponder where their water is coming from, how it gets to their taps, or whether reservoir supplies are adequate. City planners generally rely on ‘paper water’ for new development, i.e., estimated projections of how much future water is expected to be available.

What motivates people to pay attention to water use? How much attention has been paid to media publicity repeatedly announcing we are in a drought? Do people notice the pictures of depleted reservoirs? The new heroes are those who look at their dying lawns with pride! In this time of dire shortage, the difference between green and brown has become the symbol of who cares and who doesn’t.

Green lawns symbolize excessive water use……
Judging by all the green lawns that still remain, there are many who don’t relate to the plight of our waterways during this drought, which by the way, may not end for a long time. Half of the Water Agency’s prime contractors are over an hour’s drive from the river’s banks, such as City of Sonoma and Valley of the Moon, Petaluma, and North Marin Water District. Together with Marin Municipal Water District, these distant districts used 56% of Russian River water sold to major Water Agency contractors. Does out of sight water mean it’s out of mind as well?

The limitations of water supply are real, but some users believe that the water has always been there, always will be, and there is enough for everyone. This year Rohnert Park authorized 488 new building permits and, thanks to contributions by the Casino, is currently building a $13 million dollar sewer pipeline. According to a Oct. 15, 2013, Press Democrat article by Jeremy Hay, “The project is intended to spur housing and commercial development that needs the sewer capacity. That in turn, city officials hope, will provide the city an economic boost and generate development fees to pay for more infrastructure improvements.” (emphasis added)

Voluntary conservation relied on….
Throughout 2013, although regularly urged to do so by public members at their monthly meetings, water contractors refused to impose mandatory conservation requirements. On Jan. l1, 2013, Lake Mendocino was at 69,860 (water supply pool 102% full / Lake Sonoma 103%) By December 29, 2013, Lake Mendocino was at 27,055 (40% of water supply pool) or a drop of 63% over the course of a year. (Lake Sonoma at 68% was in much better shape on that date. Contractor water supplies come from Lake Sonoma, but because the Biological Opinion limits Dry Creek flows, mandatory flow reductions of 60 cfs at Hacienda have recently been imposed on the lower river. If water contractors used less, the lower river environment and the fish might have enough.)

Total rain in 2014 so far has only been about 18” and 2/3 of that fell last March. As of Oct. 19, 2014, Lake Mendocino contained 29,143 acre feet or 33% of water supply pool. If we have a rainy winter, all of these concerns will be moot, but no one is placing bets yet.

20 Gallon Challenge failed to provide real conservation savings….
Throughout 2013 the Water Agency promoted a voluntary conservation program called, “The 20 Gallon Challenge”. The idea behind this program was that the Agency was challenging water users to save 20 gallons a day voluntarily and provided the public with a list of ways to do it. They conducted a massive advertising campaign, including contest prizes of low water use washing machines, had ‘meet and greet’ booths at various fairs and much more.

Meanwhile the Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership (Prime contractors using Russian River water: see for more information) also conducted a similar campaign. They distributed large amounts of advertising via various media and their websites. They had many contests and programs such as cash for grass. While they definitely raised awareness, everything was on a voluntary level. They even won an EPA award to honor their efforts.

Website information provided about actual water savings was based on per person use. Since there are numerous ways to calculate personal use, results can vary and don’t reveal how much water is being used by entire community. Per person water use may go down, but if population numbers go up, water savings disappear. By examining ACTUAL water sales, we see the real impact to our waterways and can compare use in a more meaningful way.

Mandatory conservation contains mostly voluntary measures….
Water Agency’s Russian River water sales to prime contractors during period July 1, 2013 through June 30, 2014, saved only 3% over prior year, even while many contractors claimed great success with their programs. In the meantime, the governor made drought declarations in January and April, 2014, in which he demanded 20% MANDATORY conservation. (Prior Gazette articles on drought can be found at our website Check out January, May, June, and August, 2014, articles for more historical detail.) The result was that contractors ultimately implemented MANDATORY conservation in 2014, which in Santa Rosa’s case was only the first tier (of four) mandatory levels and actually consists mostly of voluntary measures.

As contractors bragged publically of their water savings, and after sales went down in January, February, and March, we noticed that in April, May, June, and July of 2014, contractor water sales went way up! To illustrate: in March, 2014, sales to all contractors were 2,542 acre feet (AF), and in July was up to 4,867 AF. It went down to 3681 AF in August (strange, because that’s one of the highest water use months) but up again in September to 4314 AF.

Conservation performance critics were then greeted with the explanation that water districts always use more water in summer and that sales go down in winter. Not a word spoken about the promised 20% savings.

I think we all need to pray hard for rain this winter. It doesn’t appear that conservation will save the day…..

Brenda is chair of Russian River Watershed Protection Committee and can be reached at Donations to RRWPC are needed and greatly appreciated and can be sent to P.O. Box 501, Guerneville, CA 95446.