Healdsburg Memorial Bridge

As drought conditions intensify, residents and businesses across Sonoma County are reducing water use to comply with emergent conservation requirements. Watershed levels are at historic lows, and with little relief in sight, water managers are depending on these emergency measures to keep the taps on.

Healdsburg enacted the third stage of its water shortage emergency plan on June 7, which requires all users to conserve at a rate of 40%. The city’s reduction goals are the most drastic in the county, but in the absence of such efforts, forecasts predicted Lake Mendocino would be dry by Oct. 1 — right in the midst of fire season.

Under normal conditions, Healdsburg independently operates what the city’s utility department director Terry Crowley calls a “full service water system.” However, when local waterways get depleted, the city loses its rights to divert water from the Russian River and must rely instead on an emergency contract with Sonoma Water in order to keep water flowing to Healdsburg’s businesses and residents.

“The challenge with that backup water agreement is that it's limited itself,” Crowley said, explaining the need for such reductions. “And so we have to really ration that water, so that we have water throughout the summer, not just our normal usage for the early part of summer and then some really, really significant reductions later in the year.”

The town of Windsor is also working to reduce its water demand. Windsor’s water use increased slightly in the spring, even as the county implemented a voluntary 20% reduction goal in early May, according to the city’s environmental program manager, Cristina Goulart. As watershed levels dropped, Windsor changed its messaging around conservation from “it’s a dry year” to the more urgent campaign, “drought is here.”

“As we received more information from the state and from the county, we realized that there was an additional need for urgency in terms of water conservation,” Rhea Borja, Windsor’s public information officer, said.

By June, water use had been reduced by 12.5%, and Goulart was optimistic about the city’s conservation efforts going forward. The Windsor City Council will decide on July 21 whether to make the still-voluntary 20% reduction goal mandatory.

Crowley hypothesized that commercial business owners were bearing the brunt of the reduction requirements, especially those without irrigated spaces, whose water goes entirely to more essential indoor uses.

“For a commercial business that doesn't have landscaping, they really have to look at their business model and say, ‘Do I sell less product? Do I have less people coming into my business? How do I change my business to really affect that level of high reduction?’" he said.

Emergency drought policies have also been proven to disproportionately impact people from low socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a report published by the Oakland-based Pacific Institute in 2017.

Water utilities can enforce “drought charges” on their customers to cover additional costs when water supply gets low. Statewide, single-family households earning less than $25,000 a year paid an average of 2.1% of their income for basic water service with added drought charges, up from 1.8% under normal conditions.

Healdsburg and Windsor are both trying to alleviate the financial burdens that droughts can impose on lower-earning households. Healdsburg has not implemented a drought charge, nor did it rely on one during the 2012-2018 drought, Crowley said. Goulart described Windsor’s plans to offer rebate and financing programs for water-efficient technologies like turf lawns or efficient showerheads.

As of early July, Healdsburg’s water users had already reached the city’s 40% reduction goal, according to Crowley.

“It's a testament to the community's willingness to step up collectively, and do the right thing,” he said, noting that public awareness around water conservation may have rolled over from the 2012-2018 drought. “I think the city of Healdsburg may have exceeded any other conservation level in Sonoma County.”

Even before local governments began enacting these emergency conservation campaigns, water demand was on the decline statewide. Since the 1970s, demand for water has steadily decreased even as the state’s population has risen, according to a recent report from the Pacific Institute’s director of research, Heather Cooley. California also passed a bill in 2009 requiring suppliers to reduce their water use 20% by 2020; Goulart said Windsor’s long-term use exceeded that goal.

Still, no matter how successfully these emergency water regulations are implemented, some environmental activists are disheartened by the need for emergency measures in the first place.

The combination of drought, climate change and intensifying human needs has taken a dramatic toll on the Russian River and its surrounding ecosystems, according to local nonprofit Russian Riverkeeper director Don McEnhill.

McEnhill published several op-eds last summer urging residents to start saving water immediately based on the alarming water levels in Lake Mendocino.

The severity of current drought conditions, McEnhill said, were predictable before emergency conservation policies were put in place. He felt that regulating with more foresight would have alleviated the toll that the drought is taking on Sonoma’s watersheds and their surrounding ecosystems.

“With this drought — like every drought before it — essentially, we're managing in crisis after most of our reasonable options have faded away. You know, the fact that we wait until we have no water and then we start conserving ensures that we take a river that's been horribly degraded for the last 150 years, and we degrade it evermore.”

According to Crowley, water managers all along the Russian River began reducing releases from Lake Mendocino last summer, but anticipated winter rains would replenish supply.

“Unfortunately, the rain never came and resulted in the lowest recorded rainfall in over 100 years,” Crowley wrote to SoCoNews. “Starting in February of 2021 we began public conversations about the water supply and forecasted scarcities.”

Russian Riverkeeper submitted a comment letter to the Sonoma County Water Agency in January arguing for the establishment of a demand management plan for the Russian River Watershed, given the signs of impending drought. Relying on emergency Temporary Urgency Change petitions — like the ones currently in place in Windsor and Healdsburg — to manage declining water supply is “untenable and illegal,” the letter argued.

“We put so much effort into restoring the river and we just sent it backwards 25 years,” McEnhill said. “If we had enacted 20%, 25% conservation on all users last summer, we would have enough water in that lake to keep the fish healthy and not curtail people's water use this year.”

Crowley outlined several policies, such as efficiency requirements in building codes, that conserve water in both wet and dry years.

“To build better drought resilience for Healdsburg, we need to find ways to improve the water efficiency in our existing housing and businesses,” he wrote.

In Windsor, water managers are looking at new ways to supply water in addition to reducing demand.

“This drought is just basically kind of solidifying the idea that we need to fortify our supply,” Goulart said. Windsor staff is currently looking into adding potable groundwater wells to Windsor’s water system, which would provide another source of drinking water should the drought stretch on.

While these measures may keep taps flowing for the humans who rely on Sonoma’s water resources, the drought has taken a grave toll on the wildlife that depends on the waterways for survival. According to McEnhill, the Russian River’s steelhead trout population may very likely be facing extinction, and local coho salmon habitats have likewise become inhospitable as the rivers dry up.

“History has told us very clearly, with very few exceptions, that when there's tension between the human need for water and the environment, the environment loses,” he said. “The river loses.”

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