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Drought off to an early start

A flowing river with trees on the banks.
The Russian River flowing through Ukiah.

February 15, 2022 — The drought is off to an early start, all around the county. Already, no water is available for agricultural use in Redwood Valley. Fort Bragg has 30% less water than it did this time last year. There is still money available to haul water from Ukiah to the coast again, though a water storage proposal for the town of Mendocino did not get funded with the last round of drought grants.

In Potter Valley, fifty cubic feet of water per second is flowing through the powerhouse, which is limping along with damaged equipment. However, users expect 140 cubic feet per second to come through via a bypass channel, starting next month.

And things are looking dry in Fort Bragg too, according to John Smith, the city operations manager. Though the city has received more rain this year than last, he said it won’t be enough to recharge the groundwater unless it rains every day for the rest of the winter.

Howard Dashiell, the director of the county Department of Transportation, reported that there is still about 667,000 gallons of water in the holding pond in Fort Bragg from last year’s water hauling program. “As the summer goes into the fall, we could haul again,” with funding from the State Department of Water Resources, he said.

Lake Mendocino was at just 42,594 acre feet last week, which is about 62% of the target water supply. Still, water must continue to be released in order to satisfy requirements set by the National Marine Fisheries Service to supply water for habitat.

At a meeting of the Inland Water and Power Commission right after the drought task force, John Reardon, of the Russian River Flood Control District, gave a quick preview of another possible water storage option that’s being explored on Hensley Creek. He said a biological survey found no endangered species. “There’s reason for guarded optimism there,” he said, adding that he expects the official report to be available in a couple of weeks.

Sean White, the director of water and sewer for the City of Ukiah, reported that pear orchards and one vineyard are already irrigating with recycled water. While some fruit trees are already blooming, Chair Janet Pauli said she’s seen dormant watering in other parts of the state, too. “One of the lessons that those of us who farm learned last year is that the drought was so severe we believe we actually had drought-related damage during dormancy, that we could have avoided if we’d had more ground moisture,” she said, adding that during a recent trip along the I-5 corridor, she observed farmers watering walnut orchards that appeared to be completely dormant.

With water growing ever more precious, illegal diversions are ever more sternly frowned upon. Supervisor John Haschak gave listeners a heads up that the board is planning to consider an ordinance to regulate hauling water next month, which would require people extracting water and taking it elsewhere to have a permit, business license, hydrology study, and proper tracking logs. The proposed ordinance includes hefty fines for violations.

The meeting ended with a final piece of advice — or maybe a secular prayer, from the two supervisors on the drought task force: Think rain, they urged, before logging off. Think rain.

Local News
Sarah Reith is the lead reporter for KZYX News. She joined the KZYX News team in 2017, and covers local politics, water, law enforcement and the arts in Mendocino County.