The “new normal” is a phrase we have heard a lot since COVID lockdowns started over a year ago. Now it is time to repurpose that phrase for the next crisis we are facing in our watershed—drought. Historically, California has been known for its Mediterranean climate with drier summers and mild, wet winters. On occasion there would be a short period of drought conditions as La Niña passed through, or stronger wet years with El Niño. Climate change has caused this once reliable climate pattern to abruptly change in more recent years. Instead, we are now seeing longer hot, dry periods with fewer intense precipitation events during our winter months. Our water infrastructure, water use, and entire mindset around water are not prepared to deal with this new normal. We must first acknowledge and accept these changes, so that we can adapt and overcome our inefficiencies; only then can we ensure our River’s ecosystem and the basic human need for water is protected for years to come.
The need for urgency is real. Lake Mendocino is currently projected to be dry by October 1, 2021—that is in less than five months. The Russian River Watershed has averaged less than 14 inches of rain this water year, and is less than 40% of the annual average for the past 30 years. That is only second to the 1976/1977 drought period, and two years into our current dry period we are now dealing with more frequent and hotter temperatures than we did back then. These hotter temperatures increase soil moisture deficits, evapotranspiration rates, and overall demand, while simultaneously reducing groundwater recharge rates and the overall amount of water available to our local ecosystem. Not to mention the increased fire risk and subsequent impacts we regularly face when water is in low supply. This all means that we are in a much worse off place than prior dry years, and we do not know how long this current period will go on—it could be another six months, or more likely than not, another 2-5 years.
Yet, when listening to our local leaders speak we do not sense this same urgency. Instead we hear optimism that we will see plenty of rain this winter to refill our storage banks and that individuals do not need to worry about long-term conservation investments because things will go back to normal next year. We hear that a little voluntary conservation now will get us through this difficult time. It is not true though, and that mentality is what got us to our current situation. It is what makes this dry period so much more dangerous than prior ones. Only in the last three weeks or so has a sense of urgency begun to emerge in the public arena, as it has finally settled in that we won’t be getting any more rain soon.
Significant water demand reductions must be implemented for all users. We do not know when our region will next get rain, so we must try to extend our existing water supplies for as long as possible. Waiting another few months to implement stronger, 30 and 40% mandatory conservation measures is only extending the inevitable and is wasting important water supply in the meantime. Both urban and agricultural users must work together to achieve these reductions with the same rigor that we have shown each other during our recent fires.
It is important that every person is aware of the changes happening around us, the risks that are created by that change, and what we can do as a community to help face those risks together. At Russian Riverkeeper, we are helping to affect some of this necessary change by filing a Petition for Emergency Rulemaking. We are asking the State Water Board to, at minimum, implement the same measures that were in place during the 2015 drought and to adopt draft conservation regulations that were first put forth in 2018. We are also evaluating other actions we may be able to take to compel more urgent conservation. As we continue forward in our efforts, we will continue to keep you updated on this and what you may be able to do to help.