This past Sunday, while out on the River, we observed the clearest waters we can remember seeing in over 50 years. With 25+ feet of visibility, we could see the bottom of some of the deepest pools—from Geyserville to Healdsburg at Diggers Bend and Warnecke Ranch—it was incredible! Normally, we would be lucky to have 4-5 ft of visibility.
Sadly, this is not going to last for long. The incredible clarity right now is due to an increased amount of groundwater seepage which brings cold, clean water into the river system. These cold, clean waters are in stark contrast to Lake Mendocino releases or tributary flows that often have more sediment and higher temperatures this time of year. Unfortunately, as temperatures go up and water use increases for vineyards and lawns, this moment of beautiful clarity will soon end.
As we paddled downriver we saw many lower Alexander Valley vineyard pumps already on, signaling the start of the irrigation season. This means that we will soon be losing about 50% of flow between Ukiah and Healdsburg to irrigation. Two weeks ago we observed a semi-truck unloading pallets of new sod in Healdsburg so that even more water-sucking lawns could be planted. As a city that already uses more water per person than all others in the watershed, this seems counterintuitive to the current drought situation we find ourselves in. Seems like not much has changed as far as water-use patterns go.
This is unfortunate as we’re currently facing the worst water year on the river since 1907. Only two years after 2018-2019’s record rainfall, we’re going from intense floods to the worst drought in a century. It didn’t have to be this way. We wrote an editorial last June imploring residents, the wine industry, and water providers to conserve. We were ignored and now we’re managing by crisis again.
To avoid future crises we must go beyond mere water conservation. Water use reductions need to occur in our homes, but also in our local agriculture. Without improved governance and a strong conservation mindset, we will continue to repeat history. This sacrifices our ability to enjoy the River and causes harm to its health. There are solutions available if we are willing to look for them. We can change how, when, and where we save water and avoid these crises.
Our work over the next five years will focus on driving this community, by every means available, to reduce its water use even when rain is plentiful. After the 2015 drought, the need for reduced use and continued conservation slowly became out-of-sight out-of-mind. As humans, we can evolve and adapt readily, but our river depends on us.