California curtails Russian River water rights as Lake Mendocino level drops

City of Ukiah holds special meeting to discuss lawsuit

By Justine Frederiksen | | PUBLISHED: August 9, 2021

In the hopes of having at least 20,000 acre-feet of water remaining in Lake Mendocino by Oct. 1, the California State Water Resources Board this week ordered about 1,500 water rights holders to stop diverting water from the Russian River.

However, if the current rate of outflow from the reservoir continues, the lake could reach 20,000 acre-feet by Aug. 23, said Elizabeth Salomone, general manager of the Russian River Flood Control & Water Conservation Improvement District.

“We were losing about 220 acre feet a day,” Salomone said on Friday, explaining that late last week before the long-expected curtailments were imposed, “there was a big draw down on the river,” which she said was likely due to people taking out as much water as they could before their rights were terminated.

“In order to have enough water in the river to keep it flowing into Sonoma County, they need 25 cubic feet per second at the Healdsburg gauge, and they couldn’t keep it there, it was at 19 cfs,” she said. “So they had to keep releasing more water from the lake.”

On Friday, the outflow from the lake had returned to a more reasonable level and was “holding steady at about 115 cfs,” said Salomone, adding that hopefully the imposed curtailments will mean much less water being removed and “we should see more water being retained in the reservoir.”

As to why the 20,000 acre-feet amount, Salomone said her understanding was “that is the amount needed to meet the human health and safety needs for another year if we don’t get more rain after Oct. 1.”

So far, Salomone said, most of the water districts in the Ukiah Valley are under mandatory restrictions but only the Redwood Valley County Water District has been restricted to only providing 55 gallons of water per person per day, with agricultural uses cut off. But she expects that 55-gallons-a-day restriction to eventually spread to nearly all water districts, as “we all depend upon Lake Mendocino: Calpella, Redwood Valley, Millview, Rogina and Hopland are all directly impacted by the amount of water in the lake.”

And there are more than human factors affecting the amount of water in both the reservoir and the river. Salomone pointed to evaporation, thirsty soil, thirsty plants and thirsty creatures being a draw on the water in the river, as well.

City of Ukiah

The water supplier in the Ukiah Valley that so far seems to be the least affected by the severe drought conditions is the city of Ukiah, which was already relying largely on what it describes as robust groundwater wells to provide potable water to its residential and business customers, and relying on its new recycled water system to provide a substantial amount of water to agricultural users.

However, the city also had rights curtailed this week, including its “pre-1914 water rights,” which were previously thought untouchable. On Monday the Ukiah City Council held a special meeting to discuss in closed session “consideration of potential litigation arising from emergency drought declaration.”When asked Friday whether the city of Ukiah was planning to sue the state over curtailment of its water rights, City Manager Sage Sangiacomo replied via email: “The city of Ukiah has not filed any water right related litigation and no such action has been reported at a City Council meeting. In general related to litigation, the Brown Act requires disclosure in open session of approval given in closed session to legal counsel to initiate litigation (as well as to defend litigation). The report in open session of action authorizing new litigation need not disclose adverse parties or the particulars of the litigation, but must specify that direction to initiate litigation has been given and that the action, the defendants, and the other particulars shall, once formally commenced, be disclosed to any person upon inquiry. Again, no report of any related water right initiated litigation has been made at a City Council meeting.”

In regard to the curtailments imposed this week, Sangiacomo said, “The city of Ukiah is certainly concerned with the recent order related to the curtailment of pre-1914 water rights and other actions by the state in response to the drought. The city has attempted to work with the state on a formal agreement for conservation to avoid curtailments that will ultimately hurt the city’s ability to assist other regional partners that are struggling to meet the basic water needs of their residents for health and safety. The city will continue to explore all options with the State and regional partners in response to the drought with the hope cooperative solutions can be developed.”