The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD) serves seven municipalities from its operations on the Mad River just east of Arcata. Image: HBMWD


When the last remaining pulp mill on the Samoa Peninsula shuttered in 2010, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District (HBMWD) lost its entire industrial customer base, resulting in an 80 percent drop in water consumption across the district. 

To make up for the dramatic reduction in water use, the district launched a water resource planning initiative to look for ways to increase industrial use to maintain its existing water rights, which are slated for review by the State Water Resources Control Board in 2029. If the district can’t find a way to increase its water use in the next five years, it could stand to lose nearly 50 percent of its water rights under the state’s “use it or lose it” system.  

“We have to figure out how to maintain our local water rights because, in the state of California, water rights are owned by the state,” district General Manager John Friedenbach told the Outpost. “The water board could say, ‘Well, you’re not using the water that you used to use for the pulp mills, so we’re going to take that water back and you can only lease what you’re using for municipal customers.’ That would have, in our opinion, a dramatic detrimental effect on the aquatic life in the Mad River.”

So the water district is applying to permanently dedicate a portion of its rights to the Mad River for instream flows for environmental benefit. The proposal would incorporate the district’s current water releases from Ruth Lake Reservoir, which mimic natural seasonal flows on the Mad River, into its water right, allowing the district to retain as much of its water right as possible while also ensuring enhanced summer flows that benefit salmonids and other special status species for the foreseeable future.

The proposal would not change the water district’s current instream flow allocation, which accounts for roughly 25 percent, or 20-25 million gallons per day (MGD), of the district’s proposed water rights allocation, as seen in the pie chart below. “It’s not going to increase the rate of outflow from Ruth Lake,” Friedenbach said. “We’re just trying to preserve the status quo.”

Image: HBMWD

The water district received a $693,000 grant from the state Wildlife Conservation Board in 2018 to fund the various studies needed to amend its water rights and “all of the components that were necessary to get us in a position to file this petition for change,” Friedenbach said. 

“We have a draft petition that we’ve sent to the water board staff for their draft review, and they’ve provided feedback to us,” he continued. “Our next step is to talk to the public about this petition for change and receive feedback. I want to reiterate that [this proposal] would not impact customers.”

The water district will host an informational workshop at the Wharfinger Building in Eureka on Feb. 12. (More information below.) If the state water board grants the instream flow petition, that would keep approximately 27 percent of the district’s existing water rights intact. 

“Of the remaining 55 MGD (35 MGD transport [and] 20 MGD local sales), the district could stand to lose the 35 MGD transport, or about 47 percent, in 2029 when our water rights are up for renewal,” Friedenbach said. (In this case, “transport” refers to water sales outside the district’s existing boundaries. ) “That said, the district will put forth an argument to the water board that we continue to seek beneficial users of those 35 MGD through our transport option in our Water Resource Planning effort.”

The water district has explored the possibility of piping water to municipalities and public agencies outside of the district to boost water sales but, surprisingly, there hasn’t been much interest from neighboring counties. 

“We did a high-level engineering study to kind of flesh out the concept of building a pipeline from Humboldt County south through Mendocino and most likely to Sonoma County because of the high population down there,” Friedenbach said. “Our board marketed the idea during the recent drought years, I think between 2014 and 2017, but none of the agencies we went to in Northern California said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea! Sign me up!’”

Selling water outside of the area would provide additional protection for the district’s water rights, but doing so could also put the district in a vulnerable legal position. For example, customers could become dependent on our water supply and “litigate or legislate for terms beyond contractual agreements,” according to a 2010 Water Resouce Planning Report.

The district has also looked into the possibility of increasing local sales in recent years. Three years ago, the water district agreed to conduct a feasibility study to investigate the possibility of extending water service from McKinleyville up to the Trinidad Rancheria to supply water for the proposed multi-story Hyatt hotel at the Cher-Ae Heights Casino. The district is also working on a Mainline Extension Agreement with the Blue Lake Rancheria. 

The district was hoping to bolster industrial sales by supplying the water needed for Nordic Aquafarms’ onshore fish farm, but those plans fell through when Nordic decided to raise yellowtail kingfish at the facility rather than Atlantic Salmon.

“Nordic was going to take about three [MGD] of industrial water, which isn’t a lot compared to the 65 [MGD] the two pulp mills used when they were in operation,” Friedenbach said. “[The Department of] Fish and Wildlife didn’t approve their permit for a salmon species, so Nordic had to change their fish species to a saltwater fish. They don’t require industrial water, but they’re going to take domestic water for their fish cleaning process. It’s disappointing, but nonetheless, they will be a retail customer.” 

The district is also working with the Humboldt Bay Harbor, Recreation and Conservation District to look into the possibility of supplying industrial water to the Humboldt Offshore Wind Terminal Project.

But for the time being, the district is focused on incorporating its instream allocations into its water rights, Friedenbach said.

If you have thoughts on the matter you’ll want to attend the workshop on Monday, Feb. 12 from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Wharfinger Building at 1 Marina Way in Eureka. More information can be found in the flyer below.