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Other organizations cite additional water saving efforts, recycled water use

Editor's Note: The Fish Passage Working Group and the Water Supply Working Group from the Potter Valley Project finished their work and their work led to the formation of the Two Basin Solution Partners.

 Local elected officials, agriculture groups and a slew of water experts from various organizations from Marin, Sonoma and Mendocino counties met virtually on May 10 for a drought summit to discuss mitigation measures, resources and solutions in response to the extreme drought emergency that the Russian River watershed and much of the state is facing.

Congressman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, convened the special meeting, which featured  three to four minutes of talking points from each attendee and a question and answer session.

Summit attendees included State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg; Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa; Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Chair Lynda Hopkins; District 1 Mendocino County Supervisor Glenn McGourty; Sonoma County Water Agency General Manager, Grant Davis; General Manager of North Marin Water District, Drew McIntyre; General Manager of the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, Beth Salomone; Regional Commander Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers; Lake Sonoma Operations and Readiness Chief at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nick Malasavage; Devon Jones of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau; Tawny Tesconi of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and President of the Sonoma County Winegrowers, Karissa Kruse.   

While some speakers spoke of the severity of the dire drought situation, the focus of the two hour-long discussion was on solutions and resources needed to implement drought mitigation solutions and resiliency measures.

Many pointed to the enhanced use of recycled water, tapping into groundwater and aquifers and increasing, bolstering and maintaining ground water storage, lining ponds to prevent seepage, implementing the use of sub-seasonal forecasting and amplified community outreach to educate folks on the importance of reducing water usage.

The Sonoma County Water Agency also briefly discussed their plan to go to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to commit to a 20% reduction in water use from the Russian River.

Of all of these potential measures and tactics, state and federal funding and grants are one of the most important resources for drought response. Without funding or aid from a presidential declaration, getting enough dollars to support these efforts could be tricky. To that end, all of the panelists mentioned the need for more funding in order to face the summer drought and dry months ahead.

“We are going to see challenges for water supply, for fish and environmental values, for agriculture — including wine — for recreation and I don’t think we need to spend a lot of time today talking about how bad it is. I think we all know it’s really bad, but we do need to have a very clear sense of the most critical needs that we’re going to face and to do our best to try to connect those needs with the resources at the local, state and federal level that can help get folks through what is going to be a tough summer, so that’s what today is all about,” Huffman said.

Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said the State Senate is moving on a $3.4 billion drought relief package.

“Watersheds across California are beyond parched. The snowpack is down to 8% of average, stream flows are dramatically reduced here on the North Coast and we’re short 500,000 acre feet of water that should be in reservoirs throughout the state,” McGuire said in a statement posted to his Facebook page. “The State Senate is moving on a $3.4 billion drought relief package focused on smaller/low income communities, to help homeowners/small biz owners to replace high water consumption landscapes, to assist farmers/ranchers with groundwater challenges, advancing hundreds of millions for additional storage/groundwater recharge/stormwater capture projects and millions to protect endangered species.”

Of that, $500 million will be used to help develop enhanced drinking water supply and to assist with water efficiency needs in smaller, lower-income communities. McGuire said another $500 million will help homeowners and small business owners to replace high water consumption landscapes with water efficient versions.

$350 million will go towards emergency groundwater assistance for farmers and ranchers and $200 million for water infrastructure projects such as groundwater recharge projects and well rehabilitation for commercial and residential wells. About $400 million will be for recycled water grants along with rain water and stormwater capture projects. Another $285 million will be earmarked for protecting fish and wildlife and $1 billion in grants will be used to help ratepayers and utilities pay back bills, according to McGuire.

“Today’s hearing couldn’t come at a more critical time for the north coast. While California climate is always invariable, the last couple of decades has been some of the hottest on record here in the Golden State and we know that the climate crisis is making droughts here in California more intense,” McGuire said during the summit.

 According to Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, not only is the snowpack low, but the fuel moisture content is also extremely low.

“What snowmelt we do have is not running off to fill streams, rivers and lakes but rather sublimating directly into the dry atmosphere or soaking into the parched ground. Exceptionally low 1,000-hour fuel moisture content (translation: really dry forests) heightens the risk for future catastrophic forest fires,” Hopkins wrote in a Facebook post.

In the same post, Hopkins quoted Daniel Swain of Weather West who said the California 2021 fire season is going to be a rough one, “There’s no sugar coating it.”

“Vegetation moisture is already at peak summer-like dryness in many places, and is breaking records in some spots (especially in NorCal). There are essentially no mitigating factors foreseeable between now and the end of fire season sometime in the autumn–so I do expect things to ramp up from here… The period of greatest risk will probably be from August into October when vegetation reaches maximal seasonal dryness and when offshore winds start to ramp up,” according to the Swain quote from Hopkins’ post.

Lt. Col. Cunningham also mentioned increased fire risk as a worry heading into this summer and said fisheries are also a major concern. He said Lake Sonoma is at the lowest level that they’ve seen in years and that the boating speed limit around the lake will likely have to be reduced.

“I think I’m getting a little bit tired of the word unprecedented. We’ve been through unprecedented wildfires, an unprecedented pandemic and now unprecedented drought conditions with the lowest water levels our local reservoirs have ever seen,” Hopkins said during the Monday morning summit.

On a positive note, Hopkins said, “I believe that we’ve achieved an unprecedented level of collaboration and cooperation across government and across our community.”

Thompson also offered a bright note and said despite the drought, there are steps that can be taken to work to conserve water and to build drought resiliency for future dry spells.

“It’s really clear, if it doesn’t rain we don’t have water but that doesn’t mean there aren’t steps that we can take to help mitigate it,” Thompson said.

Davis said with the help of colleagues and elected officials, he is confident that they will be able to face this drought like they’ve done before.

“The entire Russian River watershed is under a situation that requires a three-county approach that is going to be supported by state and public funding, so to that end I would say we should follow the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) Department of Agriculture and a presidential declaration would be of assistance right now. In particular, we’re looking at a number of projects that can recharge groundwater and aquifer storage. There may be help from a presidential declaration and that would be something that would be very helpful,” he said. 

He added that it would also be helpful if they could get funding — there’s currently a $15 million request — in order to get a handle on a sub-seasonal forecasting project that would help forecast and inform reservoir operations. A similar program allowed them to hold back 11,000 acre feet of water at Lake Mendocino with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“It’s clear that with climate change we’ll have to rethink the idea that our water supply comes every year in annual precipitation. The old model of rain and snow on the mountains that gets collected in reservoirs and then distributed may not happen every year in the future. Drought water sustainably managed is going to play an important role and we are going to need the infrastructure to do that,” said McGourty.

McGourty noted that locally we do not have the tax base to accomplish everything in terms of drought mitigation for wildlife and other elements and that partnerships between the different levels of government will be critical in helping with these mitigations and measures.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has already declared a drought emergency for the Russian River watershed, which will help provide some funding options for water shortage mitigation measures.

“I am grateful that Gov. Newsom took early steps to proclaim a drought emergency for the Russian River watershed for Sonoma and Mendocino counties. That declaration will help us access funding to help with infrastructure and building resiliency, provide flexibility to make changes or to develop emergency regulations if needed,” Wood said.

Davis also cited a need for federal and state support for the ongoing Potter Valley Project, an ongoing hydro-electricity project that includes two dams on the Eel River, water diversion facilities and a powerhouse. Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) owns the project, which stores winter runoff from the upper Eel River basin and annually diverts an average of 90,000 acre feet of Eel River water into the Russian River for hydro-electricity.

Two committees, the Fish Passage Working Group and the Water Supply Working Group, are working to develop recommendations and information on water supply and fish passage to the project’s Huffman Ad Hoc Committee.

The two committees have since completed their work, which led to the formation of the Two Basin Solution Partners, which aims to relicense the project. You can read about the Two Basin Partnership here: https://www.twobasinsolution.org/2021/03/17/two-basin-solution-continues-to-move-forward/.  

“The other thing we’re struggling with is the Potter Valley project. There are ongoing needs for federal and state support in particular to get the studies that we need to understand better how to make that two basin solution possible through Pottery Valley and the existing inflows into Lake Mendocino,” Davis said.

Davis also mentioned Sonoma Water’s plan to work to reduce Russian River water usage by 20%, a significant step to save water.

“There is a heightened sense of urgency... and it’s also clear that the upper Russian River watershed is in dire straits right now and some of the modeling is quite alarming. Tomorrow (Tuesday, May 11) We’ll be going to the board of supervisors in a joint item with the board of directors of Sonoma Water to discuss a resolution that also supports going to the state water resources control board for a temporary urgency change order that is going to commit to a 20% reduction out of the Russian River,” Davis said.

(This item was approved by the board of supervisors).

Other proposed solutions and funding requests centered around water resiliency projects such as recycled water and water storage programs.

McIntyre said at the North Marin Water District, they’d like to embark on a water resiliency project to see how they can build their water and drought resiliency. He also said focusing on the use of the recycled water supply will be important. He said recycled water could exceed the North Marin Water District’s water supply from the Stafford Lake reservoir this year.

“Recycled water is steady and consistent,” he said.

With that in mind, he said the district is working with agriculture communities to try to make recycled water more available and is encouraging streamlining efforts to make it easier to expand the use of recycled water to district customers.

Salomone from the Russian River Flood Control District said right now their goal is to let people know what is being asked of them in terms of water conservations and to teach people how to save water.

“We don’t have a community relations department or an outreach staff and we’ve been limping along trying to squeeze in mainstream media interviews and posts on social media to get the word out. That would be a huge help to get outreach and education (on water conservation). The other thing is how do we motivate people? People love free stuff, we can give them buckets, leak detection tabs, stickers, low-flow fixtures, etc. These are great examples of things that people will line up to collect and use,” Salomone said.

She said they could also possibly offer incentives for people to adapt to conservation measures like water efficient landscaping.

“We have got to shift the way we think about using and storing water in this region and we need your help to do that and funding for immediate response efforts and even more collaboration, in particular with the state agencies, to mitigate the financial impact to the small water suppliers and we need assistance and planning and preparedness,” Salomone said.

Jones from the Mendocino County Farm Bureau said match grant funding would be beneficial for agricultural focused water projects such as creating more stream ponds for water storage and providing pond liners to help reduce water seepage.

Tesconi from the Sonoma County Farm Bureau reiterated the desire for more recycled water use among farmers so as to not force farmers or ranchers to use their ground water supply.

Kruse warned that the county may see less of a wine crop this year due to the drought and said more water monitoring resources and specialty crop insurance would be helpful in the wine grower sector of the county’s agriculture industry.

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