The looming 2021 drought could be the worst yet, and serves as a textbook example of the urgent need for climate adaptation. Doing “business as usual” is what has put the upper Russian River at risk of going dry as water managers are failing to adopt effective water conservation measures in time.
Make no mistake the outlook for this summer is grim. Last year we had 52% of normal rain, and this year is even worse at less than 40% of normal rainfall. The reality is that Lake Mendocino, which provides flow from Ukiah to Healdsburg, is too small for humanity’s ever-growing demand for water unless we magically receive normal rainfall every year. As we are learning, we are continually two years away from running out of water if we do not change the way we use and manage water. Despite Sonoma Water’s great work to change the way Lake Mendocino is managed to maximize storage, that only helps when we get rain, which is becoming increasingly more elusive. Lake Pillsbury and the Potter Valley Diversion will not save us from droughts though some claims have stated otherwise, as that entire region is also experiencing rainfall deficits just like us.
We advocated to the State Water Board last year when we recognized that storage at Lake Mendocino was at risk and that mandated water conservation measures would help delay these harms. If the State Water Board had heeded our warning, early conservation could have helped preserve our storage and prevented flow reductions, but that opportunity was missed. In January, we advocated again that the State Water Board require mandatory conservation in any approvals allowing Sonoma Water to cut Russian River flow. Although no conservation measures have been taken yet, we are hopeful that the Water Board will soon institute water conservation for all Upper Russian River parties. Reducing demand through water conservation is the only tool we have left as we can’t make it rain. Even then, conservation does not guarantee we can protect the river’s flow from becoming disconnected and un-navigable. To avoid these situations, we must be proactive and work towards a permanent Demand Management Plan for the Russian River.
Such a plan would establish a reliable and consistent manner of regulating the Russian River during times of low precipitation so that our watershed’s health is protected to the best extent possible. This plan would set a series of storage level thresholds that then trigger a corresponding level of water conservation. For example, if Lake Mendocino storage drops below 70,000 acre feet of water, a corresponding 10% water demand reduction would automatically be required of all users in the watershed, including agricultural. Or if Lake Mendocino storage drops below 60,000 acre feet, like in 2014, than a 20% use reduction might be required to preserve stored water. While these are just examples of what might be required, it is actions like these that can help put another 25-30cfs back into the river and ensure that Lake Mendocino releases are not used in a wasteful or unreasonable manner.
This plan would primarily be based on the recommendations of a scientific panel, but would also involve extensive feedback and involvement of local stakeholders so that actions are equitable. Without a proactive Demand Management Plan our watershed and our water users will continue to be put at risk. Drought is inevitable in our region so we must prepare adequately for it and ensure that all users are equally responsible for protecting our limited water resources. Once the water has left our watershed it is gone and not coming back, so the time to conserve is now.