Lake Mendocino was largely dried up due to drought conditions in January. Photo by Bobby Cochran Photography courtesy of Russian River Flood Control, & Water Conservation Improvement District


California Gov. Gavin Newsom today declared a drought emergency for parched water systems along the Russian River watershed that serve hundreds of thousands of Californians in two counties.

The emergency declaration will give state agencies the power to relax some water quality requirements, allowing more water to be stored in reservoirs serving Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

Most of the state is suffering severe drought conditions due to low rainfall and snowpack, but state water officials said that the other regions aren’t hit hard enough yet to declare a statewide emergency.

Standing on the edge of Lake Mendocino, a rain-fed reservoir rimmed with a cracked crust of mud, Newsom said he is preparing statewide by issuing a separate order calling for a range of actions, including improved monitoring of groundwater pumping and identifying vulnerable rural water systems with tenuous water supplies.

“We’ve barely been out of those drought conditions (in recent years) and here we are, entering back into those drought conditions,” Newsom said.

California’s last drought began in 2012 and spanned five years.

Newsom’s new drought emergency declaration focuses specifically on the Russian River watershed, which spans Sonoma and Mendocino counties and has been hardest hit by the drought desiccating California. The region relies on rainfall, and is isolated from state and federal aqueducts.

It is also home to the endangered Coho salmon and the threatened Chinook salmon and Steelhead trout, which will be at risk if too much water is diverted from the river for farms and taps.

The emergency order will allow state officials, if necessary, to restrict the amount diverted and speed up contracts for certain services, such as relocating fish stranded in drying puddles.

“It’s a fairly isolated watershed, and as a result, in the second dry year, is experiencing acute dry conditions that threaten not only the ability to provide water for communities for domestic use, but then also certain imperiled fish populations,” Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot said in an interview with CalMatters.

The drought emergency focuses specifically on the Russian River watershed, which spans Sonoma and Mendocino counties and has been hardest hit by the drought desiccating California.

Sonoma Water, a major provider in the region that serves 600,000 Sonoma and Marin County residents, has seen water levels in the region’s two major reservoirs reach historic lows. Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino have hit 62% and 43% capacity, respectively — lower than during the peak of the last drought when dry mud cracked around the puddle of Lake Mendocino’s remaining water.

Rainfall in the city of Ukiah has reached only 39% of average so far this year, beating dryness records set during the severe 1976-1977 drought. In Santa Rosa, precipitation has dipped to 38% of average.

Already, Sonoma Water has reduced flows out of the Coyote Valley Dam on Lake Mendocino to the lowest they can go, said Brad Sherwood, a Sonoma Water spokesperson.

“If we get no additional rainfall, and we can’t reduce diversions off the river, then there’s a true possibility that that reservoir will essentially dry up,” Sherwood said. “We project it will get to a level where we don’t even know if we’ll be able to get water out of it.”

While rain is expected for the weekend, experts say it’s unlikely to quench the parched conditions.

“We don’t anticipate this upcoming storm to be a typhoon deluge like it’s being reported,” Sherwood said. “It would take seven to 10 inches of rain to even make a mark, a dent in our water supply needs.”

Already, water providers in the Russian River watershed and others relying on its water have been sounding the alarm.

Mendocino County’s Board of Supervisors voted to declare a drought emergency on Tuesday. And the Redwood Valley County Water District that serves 1,200 residential and 200 agricultural customers just north of Ukiah has asked residents to use no more than 50 gallons per day per person, according to Ken Todd, vice president of the Redwood Valley County Water District’s board.

The district has also completely eliminated water for agricultural users, including Todd, a grapegrower. Once he taps out the reservoirs on his vineyards, he said, he’ll be out of water. “We won’t have enough water for irrigation this summer. So it’s definitely going to impact our crop,” he said.

Marin Water, which serves more than 191,000 people in Marin County, also receives about 25% of its water from reservoirs on the Russian River. On Tuesday, its board of directors voted to restrict certain uses of drinking water, including washing vehicles at home, power washing structures, and street cleaning. Golf courses will also be allowed to only water trees and greens starting on May 20th.

“We really want to make sure that we do everything that we can to preserve our water supply, because we’ll need it heading into the warmer months until we hit the rainy season,” said Jeanne Mariani-Belding, a spokesperson for Marin Water. “Hopefully, what will be a rainy season.”

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