Our Disappearing River, Press Democrat, 8-1-2021

The following appeared in the August 1, 2021 edition of the Press Democrat as an op-ed piece.

Months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom, facing a recall campaign while managing extraordinary wildfires, Covid-19, and worsening drought, called for a voluntary water conservation effort that initially targeted only Sonoma and Mendocino Counties.  Not too much later, as the greatest reservoirs in the state came closer to reaching their lowest levels, Newsom asked the entire State to voluntarily reduce water usage by 15%, while never calling for mandatory savings.  In the meantime, water levels went down, down, down.


As conditions became much worse, local reductions became mandatory. Most cities and counties had followed orders to save water with short showers messages, restricted garden watering, full dishwashers and clothes washers, etc.  Yet the situation continued to become worse.


Of the past seven years, at least five have seen much lower than normal rainfall, a trend that might not end next winter if La Nina causes another water-short year. Combined with precedent setting heat waves, and record-setting fire storms, scientists are viewing this as further proof of a global warming syndrome.

To make matters worse, Sonoma Water’s ‘Schedule of Actual Water Deliveries in Acre Feet” indicates a significant increase in water use.  The prime contractors (plus Marin Municipal Water District) purchased 6,117.8 acre-feet more water in the twelve months ending  June 30 than they had in the previous year, a 9% increase in water sales.  Marin Municipal is not a regular contractor, but it used 2,351.3 acre-feet more during the same period.  Santa Rosa used 28 acre-feet less, and was the only contractor with a reduction.

Several contractors don’t even have mandatory requirements listed on their websites although most make suggestions for saving water. Healdsburg supposedly has a 40% mandatory reduction, but it allows 74 gallons per person each day.  Usually 20% mandatory reductions calls for 55 gallons per person each day, an amount the California Legislature has set as a goal.

We rate Santa Rosa as having the best and easiest to use Website for drought help and they state: “ Effective Immediately: Santa Rosa adopts Mandatory 20% Reductions in Water Use and Enacts Water Restrictions and Prohibitions. There are clearly marked tips with pictures, for savings in homes and yards, and it includes rebate offers, information on finding and fixing leaks, and more.  In our opinion, it is simple, clear, and persuasive.


For the last month the lower river has been flowing between 29 cubic feet per second and 50 cfs at the Hacienda Bridge. This is the lowest the river has been since 1976. Dry weather flows are normally 85 cfs.  Algae mats covering the river almost completely in several places.  This may be dangerous for fish and aquatic life and may help generate toxic algae blooms that can kill dogs and make humans sick.

Ludwigia is invasively growing towards the middle of the river and will go even further as low flows continue, the water heats further and nutrients become more concentrated.  You can’t tell water levels from looking at an empty river surface, but watch someone walk across ankle deep all the way and you will get the general idea.


In the meantime, as the reservoirs run out of water and the river becomes toxic to aquatic life, people, pets, and riparian vegetation, many leaders fail to take strong actions to accomplish mandated water savings.  They don’t call for at least a temporary freeze on new building permits.  They do not consider that many residents had already cut back at least 20% or more in the past and can’t cut back much further.


It is critical to picture what it would be like to possibly have no water next year, and get more serious about stringently cutting use.  We need to work together on this.