Someday we’ll all be back here. For now, it’s still Zoom. File photo.


This year’s drought is shaping up to be very, very bad. Juvenile salmon in the Klamath River system are already starting to perish in “catastrophic” numbers, with low flows as the primary cause. It looks very likely that the Eel River will fail to reach the sea later this year, as last happened during the 2014 drought. The soil and the vegetation, especially in the inland areas, are parched, and the likelihood for wildfire is high. Some areas might have problems getting drinking water.

Pretty much everyone who spoke at yesterday’s Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting – during which the board and the public heard from a parade of governmental agency representatives on the front lines of this problem – agreed to these basic statements of fact. What to do about those facts? That’s another question, and one that was agreed to only vaguely, after about an hour and a half of somewhat chaotic deliberation.

Apart from that, there were two other major items on the Board of Supervisors’ agenda. Supervisors and the public got a first look at a draft revision to the county’s firearms ordinances, which would prohibit the shooting of firearms on most of the Samoa Peninsula and elsewhere near “heavily used recreation areas.” And it brought to an end a fairly disastrous (and expensive) effort to outsource parts of its broken payroll system for county employees.

Our Dry Future

“What I’m going to suggest is what a lot of other experts are suggesting, is that this is something more significant than a drought,” said Craig Tucker, a natural resources consultant for the Karuk Tribe, during the morning’s public forum. “In California, nine out of the 11 hottest years on record, and three out of the five driest years on record, have occurred since 2011.”

“So what I’m trying to say is the weather is changing, and this is a change that really has been predicted by climatologists for at least two decades. So what we’re living, here, is not really a drought but a new normal that is being driven by climate change.”

Tucker was one of the eight experts from local, tribal, state and federal agencies invited by Supervisor Mike Wilson to speak to the board about the coming dry year and beyond, with the intention of starting a conversation about what the county should be doing to prepare.

Though most Humboldt County residents are in no danger of running out of water, thanks to the vast untapped capacity of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s operations on the Mad River, the same doesn’t hold true for people outside the Eureka-Cutten-Arcata-McKinleyville population core. And that’s leaving aside the devastating impacts of the current drought on our natural systems, which will inevitably lead to wildfire and stress on fisheries.

Kathleen Zontos, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Eureka, kicked off the discussion with an overview of just how bad the current drought year is shaping up to be. Right now, she said, Eureka is at about 60 percent of normal rainfall in this “water year” – October to September. (That number ranges from 50 to 70 percent at different locations around the county.) That’s on top of a dry year last year as well. Given that the bulk of our wet weather has already passed, that means we’re already in drought.

“Weather-wise, the damage has already been done,” she said.

Kurt McCray, chief of the Humboldt-Del Norte Cal Fire unit, said that his agency is preparing for the worst this year. The wildlands are full of dry, dead fuel, he said, and just as importantly the soil moisture level is currently very low. They’ll be staffing up to full firefighting readiness on June 1 this year – about three weeks ahead of normal – and he urged people in the hills to be prepared, by maintaining defensible space around their homes and being prepared to evacuate.

“I want to leave something – a little bit of a trivial fact, but of very significant importance to me,” McCray said. “At one point last fall, five of the six largest fires in recorded California history were burning at the same time in California. So the potential is there, and the conditions are far worse than they were at this time last year.”

Joe James, chair of the Yurok Tribe, said that the Klamath River is already in a state of emergency – the tribe itself has issued a declaration, and so has Governor Newsom – and reiterated that juvenile salmon are experiencing a die-off right now. He urged everyone on the call to reach out to the state and federal government to sound the alarm.

Chris Harris of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District reiterated that Ruth Lake reservoir is at nearly full capacity, and there’s little danger of running out. (But the district gets its water not only from behind the dam, she noted, but from various tributaries that flow into it. It sucks up water from its Ranney collectors on the banks of the Mad near Blue Lake.)

Harris told the board about a couple of initiatives her district is working on. One: They’re looking to some of their excess capacity for environmental purposes – “in-stream flows,” as she called them – to supplement river water for natural systems in the dry times. Secondly, she said, they’re looking at developing loading stations for water delivery trucks to deliver to communities in need. These could only supply non-potable water, she said, and there are some questions about whether they would have enough scale to meet demand – trucking enough water to meet even a small community’s regular demands would be an enormous, probably impossible, undertaking.

Three county employees wrapped up the testimony: Hank Seemann, the county’s deputy director of public works; John Ford, its planning director; and Ryan Derby, the county’s emergency operations manager.

And then the board got on to the sticky question about what to do about this grave state of affairs.

What to Do

The testimony from the experts lasted just about an hour. The amount of time supervisors deliberated on their testimony – taking public comment, asking questions of panelists, their staff and each other, proposing and voting on motions – took about double that amount of time.

One thing that loomed large during the discussion: Whether or not Humboldt County should itself declare a state of emergency in regard to the drought – if not now, then at some point in the near future.

Supervisor Madrone was all for immediate action. “I really firmly believe we need to pass a proclamation, like, today,” he said. “I want to advocate for getting that done sooner rather than later.” But Supervisor Bohn was strongly against such a move, at least at this point, citing the fact that the county is already operating under emergency declarations relating to homelessness and COVID. (Earlier, during his presentation to the board, emergency operations manager Ryan Derby warned that at this point any actions taken pursuant to a local declaration of emergency would have to be funded locally – that there aren’t any federal or state dollars available yet.)

Supervisor Bushnell, meanwhile, repeatedly expressed caution about taking any significant action at this moment, given, she said, that the board had not heard any testimony from the agricultural and cannabis communities about the subject. (During the public comment period, Bushnell’s appointee to the county’s planning commission, Thomas Mulder, railed against the speakers that kicked off the discussion: “I know you’re asking for people to be polite, but I feel that the way in which the presentation was structured was an attack on our rural property rights,” he said.)

There was much back and forth and some side discussion. What about the water impact of new “megagrows”? Most of the new permits being approved these days are small and preexisting operations, said Planning Director John Ford. (Though people calling in during the public comment period charged that those preexisting operations are growing in size.) What about groundwater resources in the Eel River Valley – wells and such – that are covered by the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act? (Scientists are currently studying the relationship between those underground supplies and drought conditions on the surface, said Public Works Deputy Director Hank Seemann, and should have answers next year.)

One concrete proposal was offered: Supervisor Mike Wilson, echoing Craig Tucker’s comments about our climatological “new normal,” suggested that the county should create a new position – a “sustainability and resilience coordinator” – that could be the local point person for policy relating to climate change, and could also seek funding for the county’s adaptation efforts. Many other California counties have already created such a position, he said.

Finally, Wilson put forward a motion for the board’s consideration. It came in two parts – one: that staff come back with a drought update in four to six weeks, and to have some policy options for the board to consider; and two: that the board discuss, at a future date, the option of hiring a sustainability and resilience coordinator.

Wilson: Yes. Bass: Yes. Madrone (surprisingly): No. Bohn (with a bit of a laugh): No. Bushnell: No. Motion fails.

Bass, as the board’s chair, prepared to move on the next item on the agenda, saying “Well, this has been an interesting day already.” But Madrone, who had been largely silent during the back-and-forth among the other supervisors, chimed in, saying wanted to justify his seemingly out-of-left-field no vote. Madrone said he supported all the aspects of Wilson’s proposals except one: Four to six weeks was too slow.

“I’m looking to take action not in four to six weeks,” he said. “I think we ought to be acting today, and if not today then in a week or two, but I very much support the [sustainability and resilience] position that was suggested.”

“Would you like to make a motion to that half of the item?” Wilson asked. “Because we’ve now just sent a message that we don’t want that. And that message is going to be heard loud and clear. So would you like to make a motion of something you want to see happen here today?”

Thus began another 20-odd minutes of hair-pulling discussion about things like parliamentary procedure, about what sort of time frame would be reasonable for staff to do the new work requested of them without pulling them from other duties. Eventually, two new ideas were thrown into the mix: That the board could direct county staff, now, to put out statements to the public that we are in a serious drought crisis, and that everyone should conserve water and practice fire readiness; and two, that Derby, Seemann and Ford could be formally appointed to a task force that would study policy options for a county drought response, and that this task force would report back to the board as soon as possible.

Madrone made two separate motions to incorporate those two ideas into Wilson’s previous omnibus motion, and both of Madrone’s motions passed unanimously.

The Payroll Debacle

After a lunch break, the board got back to business. First up: An embarrassing about-face on its choice of a payroll software vendor, which had been a major point of contention in last year’s war between Auditor-Controller Karen Paz Dominguez and much of the rest of county leadership.

County payroll has been broken for a long time. Disregarding Paz Dominguez’s defiant protest, the county chose a new software vendor in an effort to fix the problem – Automatic Data Processing, or ADP. They didn’t come cheap: The county was to pay one-time costs of $146,000 and about $359,000 per year for the pleasure of using ADP systems.

What we learned yesterday: Despite receiving such an astounding amount of cash, ADP hasn’t been able to get their systems to work with vagaries of Humboldt County payroll. Or, if you’d like to place the blame the other way, Humboldt County payroll hasn’t been able to adapt itself to the vagaries of APD’s system. In particular, according to the staff report:

Through this process the project team has identified significant limitations associated with the ADP platform that have the potential to create considerable risk for the county. These limitations are functionally related to position control, multiple pay assignments, mandated equal opportunity reporting, and the ADP system’s inability to handle the county’s five-digit decimal point salary configuration. These shortcomings have profound implications for agency operations and create financial risk.

… which, to this untutored but somewhat software-savvy observer, seem like a) the kinds of things you could figure out before forking over $146,000, and b) the kinds of things a software company could fix for $146,000. That is an editorial aside.

But this was not the moment for recrimination, apparently, and the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to cut bait on the whole deal without much discussion. Human Resources Director Linda Le offered thanks to everyone, and most especially Paz Dominguez, who participated in the attempt to implement ADP, and several other department heads chimed in to say that cutting off ADP was the right decision.

Payroll is still more or less broken. Treasurer/Tax Collector John Bartholomew, always a level head, hoped that this would be a learning experience.

“I feel badly for the amount of time they had to expend to come to that determination,” Bartholomew said, speaking of the county staff who were tasked with implementing ADP and eventually came to the decision to ditch it. “But at the same time, they’re launching into the next stage of this process to figure out what the best payroll system is for the county in good fashion.”

“Next time around, we’ll find the right solution to these problems.”

Soon: No Shooting on the Spit

No action was taken, but the county took its first look at a revision to its firearms ordinance. The main points: When passed, there will be no shooting allowed on most of the Samoa Peninsula, or within 150 yards of any “heavily used recreation area” or any occupied building not belonging to the shooter, anywhere in the county.

Supervisor Bohn took some pains to verify that this would not be a hardship on local duck or goose hunters, since they’re not hunting on the Peninsula much anyway, and also that this would not affect the Redwood Gun Club, the target range just to the north of Ma-l’el Dunes. The Gun Club is indeed on the Samoa Peninsula, but is just outside the proscribed range in the new ordinance.

Map of the probably soon-to-be “no shooting zone” on the Samoa Peninsula.

The revision to the ordinance has been in the works for quite a while now. It was prompted by an informal target range that had been set up just outside the town of Samoa, on property owned by local developer Dan Johnson’s company.

The board will revisit the new firearms ordinance at a later date – probably next week’s meeting.