State water regulators could begin suspending water rights in the Russian River watershed as early as next month as drought drags into a third summer, intensifying the conservation needs of the water in the region.
But the cuts will likely affect fewer water diversions this year than last year, when dangerously low reservoir levels forced state authorities to freeze the water rights of more than 1,800 landowners, districts hydraulics and municipalities in order to guarantee a minimum supply in the two main reservoirs, in particular Lake Mendocino. , until fall.
The luxury of time has allowed this year’s plans to reflect a more refined and nuanced approach to reductions, based in part on public input, according to water regulators. Their goal: to maintain base stream flows and stored supplies in a river system that is the lifeline for rural residents, farms, and urban dwellers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.
It’s not an easy task this year, which started with three months that were the driest on record for such a winter period.
Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir, is at 58% of its seasonal capacity, lower than it was a year ago at this time.
Water regulators are optimistic that a voluntary sharing agreement between those who supply directly from the Russian River and some tributaries could avoid some pain.
If enough people participate, it would allow those with older, “senior” water rights to share their allotments with junior water rights holders who would otherwise see their surface water diversions reduced or halted entirely, as happened on an unprecedented scale last year.
“The water rights priority system is normally all or nothing – you can use your water right or it can’t,” said Sam Boland-Brien, supervising engineer at State Water Resources, on Wednesday. Control Board.
A sharing agreement, if widely joined, “kinda gets everyone through the drought together,” he said.
A new framework for emergency cuts, unanimously approved by the five-member water board on Tuesday, set aside space for this sharing agreement while outlining a more precise way to fine-tune cuts in the upper reaches of the river based on differences in hydrology and demand.
A similar methodology was used to determine which of the 300 water rights were reduced in the lower watershed last year. But in the upper reaches of the river, above the confluence with Dry Creek near Healdsburg, water rights have been suspended for the more than 1,500 diversions, including the towns of Cloverdale and Healdsburg, as well as winemakers , farmers and water districts.
Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Boer was among those who applauded the decision on Tuesday, calling it a “great leap forward.”
Mendocino County landowners, who represented a large portion of users affected by last year’s crackdown, were grateful “looking at the proposed settlement this year that geography has not been used as a guideline for reductions. (alone), especially for the upper reaches,” she told the water department.
The finalized settlement comes as the region — indeed, all of California — faces a third year of abnormally low rainfall, with each successive year worsening parched landscape conditions and straining already strained groundwater resources, a supply key in times of drought.
Where is the water going?
Water from the Russian River and its tributaries irrigates vineyards, food crops and pastures, while serving as the main source of drinking water for towns stretching from Ukiah in Mendocino County to Novato in the northern Marin County. Sonoma Water, the region’s main wholesaler, distributes its supplies to more than 600,000 residents of Sonoma and Marin counties from waterfront pumps near Forestville, downstream from Lake Sonoma.
Even more complicated is the water rights system that dictates who can take water. It dates back more than a century, to a time before the onslaught of human-caused climate change and the more severe and persistent droughts already resulting from it. Tough decisions before regulators, who must determine that there is enough water for some people and not for others, are strained efforts, with serious economic impacts.