County Eyes Water Rules and Cutbacks

by Sandi Hansen INDEX-TRIBUNE
June 9, 2008

The battle between water demands for endangered fish and the ongoing needs of urban-water users in the North Bay rages on. Somewhere in between lie the Sonoma County Water Agency and some 600,000 water customers in Sonoma, North Marin and Mendocino counties.

This week, Valley of the Moon Water District directors heard predictions of a 15 percent voluntary water reduction for customers of the water agency. That would affect the City of Sonoma, Valley of the Moon unincorporated residents, businesses, and agricultural users who rely on water purchased from the county. Sonoma County Water Agency Deputy Chief Engineer Pam Jeane, speaking at the district board meeting Tuesday, outlined the agency’s current plan for its minimum flow requirements on the Russian River, which impacts the Valley’s available water supply. “There’s been a significant change in the amount of diversion into Lake Mendocino (which feeds the Russian River),” Jeane said. “We’re just flat out not getting as much water as we used to.”

Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, both reservoirs, were built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Water is released from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River north of Santa Rosa, which makes its way to the Valley through an aqueduct. The county is charged with supplying adequate water distribution to numerous municipalities and districts in the North Bay where customer water demands keep increasing. On the heels of that increase however, is a 1986 ruling by the State Water Resources Control Board – Decision 1610 – that requires the maintenance of minimum flows on the Russian River between Lake Mendocino and Healdsburg. Those flows are required to protect the endangered salmon and steelhead fishery, and are becoming increasingly difficult to meet due to California’s drought conditions and record dry spring.

“We’re predicting very low water this year. Our current projection is 12,000 acre-feet in Lake Mendocino,” Jeane said. A water level that low causes real concern for the fall months of October through November when the Chinook salmon start migrating up the Russian River to spawn. “We’d like to preserve water in Lake Mendocino for that,” added Jeane.

She said the water agency has started down the path of creating an environmental impact statement in hopes of changing Decision 1610 so the county has more leeway in dealing with the situation. It will take a couple of years before documents will be available to support the request for a change, Jeane said. Currently, the state water board can only change policy in stream flows for 90 days at a time. Jeane emphasized that the state makes the decision on how much water to store and release. The county water agency dictates how much water it sells. Jeane said this year’s water agency conservation campaign slogan is “Less is More,” and it’s hoped that customers will see the need and importance of reaching the 15-percent water-reduction target throughout the Valley and the county.

Meanwhile, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced this week what many North Bay and Northern California residents already know, that the state is in the midst of a drought causing numerous communities to either mandate water conservation or call for rationing. In a press release on Wednesday, Schwarzenegger said, “For the areas in Northern California that supply most of our water, this March, April and May have been the driest ever in our recorded history. As a result, some local governments are rationing water, developments can’t proceed and agricultural fields are sitting idle. We must recognize the severity of the crisis we face, so I am signing an Executive Order proclaiming a statewide drought and directing my Department of Water Resources and other entities to take immediate action to address the situation.”

In the meantime, local water officials in Sonoma County and Valley have already put in place conservation efforts and have been doing so for years. Last year’s call by the Sonoma County Water Agency for a 15 percent water-use reduction resulted in an overall 20 percent decline county-wide by residents and businesses.

Brad Sherwood, water agency spokesman, said the local impact of the governor’s announcement is twofold.

“It brings more attention that not just our region is experiencing water problems, but the entire state is as a whole. Also, now we may see more legislative support and infrastructure projects especially to meet our future water needs.”