Months ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom, target of a disgruntled developer and facing a recall campaign while managing extraordinary wildfire storms, 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 ultimately placed the entire state under voluntary limits of 15%, while never calling for mandatory ones. In the meantime, water levels went down, down, down.
As conditions became much worse, local reductions by several water agency contractors became mandatory. While most cities and counties had followed up the order to save water with short showers messages, restricted garden watering, full dish and clothes washers, etc., the situation continued to become worse. Of the last seven years, at least five have seen much lower than normal rainfall, and may be part of a trend that won’t end next winter if La Niña causes another water short year. Combined with precedent setting heat waves, extensive COVID-19 infections and record setting fire storms, scientists are viewing this all as aspects and further proof of a global warming syndrome.
To make matters worse, the water agency’s schedule of actual water deliveries in acre feet (sonomawater.org ) indicate a significant increase in water use. The prime contractors (plus Marin Municipal Water District) purchased 6,117.8 acre feet more water between July 2019-June 2020 and July 2020 – June 2021, a 9% increase in water sales. Marin Municipal is not a regular contractor (they have a separate contract, but they used 2,351.3 acre feet more during the same period. Santa Rosa used 28 acre feet less, and were the only contractors with a reduction.)
Several contractors do not even have mandatory requirements listed on their websites, although most make suggestions for saving water: Marin Municipal, Cotati, Sonoma, Valley of the Moon and North Marin Water District. Healdsburg has a 40% mandatory requirement, but they allow 74 gallons per person each day. Usually 20% mandatory 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,” and then there are clearly marked tips with pictures, for savings in homes, yards and 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 29-50 cubic feet per second (cfs) at Hacienda gauge. This is the lowest it’s been since 1976. Dry weather flows are normally 85 cfs. There are 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.
The ludwigia is invasively growing out 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, along with dwindling to a trickle, many leaders fail to take strong actions to accomplish mandated water limits. 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.
Brenda Adelman helped found Russian River Watershed Protection Committee in 1978 and has been chair of the group ever since. She is a former high school English, social studies, and art teacher originally from Chicago, Illinois with a BS from University of Wisconsin and MA from Northwestern University.