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Ukiah enters water sharing agreement, passes climate emergency resolution

Trees and flowers in the corner of a city street.
Trees and drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly plants in front of the courthouse on State Street in Ukiah.

The Ukiah City Council voted unanimously to reduce water use to help junior water rights holders, and passed a resolution to continue and expand environmentally conscious practices.

June 16, 2022 — The Ukiah City Council took two actions in response to drought and climate change at its Wednesday night meeting, when they unanimously approved a climate emergency resolution and agreed to participate in a voluntary water sharing agreement with other water users on the Russian River.

The city has a sturdy groundwater basin and holds durable senior pre-1914 water rights to flows in the East Branch of the river, which is also the destination for water that’s diverted through the Potter Valley hydropower project.

The voluntary program affects water users in the upper Russian north of the Dry Creek confluence. The agreement was written by Phil Williams, Ukiah’s special water counsel, and was approved by the State Water Board on June 7. The program is intended to provide water users with a framework within which senior rights holders can reduce their water use by a certain percentage so that junior rights holders are not left high and dry. Participants, who have until June 20 to sign up, will commit to reducing their surface water diversions using a monthly average based on their water use during the years 2017-2019. They’ll continue to keep track of how much water they use, and agree not to challenge one another’s water rights. The maximum water use reduction for pre-1914 water rights holders like the City of Ukiah will be 20%. The program will end when the Deputy Director of the Division of Water Rights determines that there has been enough rain to alleviate water supply shortage; when the drought emergency proclamation is withdrawn; or if the program starts having an adverse effect on non-participants’ water availability.

Sean White, the city’s director of water and sewer, told the City Council that the current legal structure for water rights makes it hard to distribute the diminishing resource in a way that benefits the community at large. He said the water-sharing agreement was ironed out after last year’s bruising negotiations with the state over the program to haul water from Ukiah to Fort Bragg.

“Under the current water rights system, the way it works is juniors in a really dire situation like last year essentially get nothing, and if you’re senior enough, you can get everything…I don’t think myself or Phil have any real opposition to existing California water rights, there are a lot of things that are based on that, and this doesn’t undo any of that. What's In front of you, this creates an alternative path. If you don’t want to go down that road, and you want to just do something that is voluntary, that you feel is more equitable, then really, by being equitable, it’s kind of better for your overall community, than having people who have nothing and people who have nothing, then that is sort of the overall premise of the agreement that’s in front of you.”

The program depends on how much water makes it into the East Branch of the Russian River, through natural means or by way of the diversion from the Potter Valley Project, which is owned by PG&E. PG&E has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to approve a variance, a request to reduce the amount of water coming out of Lake Pillsbury to five cubic feet per second. Water managers were expecting five times that much, plus a five cfs buffer. Williams said he expects a decision from the Commission in a few weeks, and that approval of the variance request would probably put a hold on the agreement.

“If PG&E is only hitting a 5 cfs release, this program likely will not become viable, meaning it won’t become operative until September one,” the start of the next water year, he said. “If there’s more water than that, this program will become operative and viable before then. But what happens in this program is we essentially create a separate block of water. Participating water right holders would agree to not divert a certain amount of water, thereby keeping that water in the stream that would be available to other participants further downstream…we won’t be inundated with requests for this water because it’s more passive than that. We would be creating a block of water, along with other participants, that makes that water available.”The program is a little like an insurance pool, in that it only works if enough healthy people, or, in this case, senior water rights holders, sign up for it. White said that’s why he thought it was important for the city to sign on.

“There’s a certain level of critical mass that needs to happen for this program to be viable,” he explained. “One of those is people signing up, in particular senior right holders, because they are the people who will have a resource that can be reallocated to juniors. So if only juniors sign up, then it really won’t work. So I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s important that the City agrees to participate. But there also does need to be enough resources to share, period. If the year goes as it was intended, I think it will be great for this year. The PG&E variance is a bit of a wild card in this whole situation. And even if it ends up sort of negating this program for a while, having this in place and having us be a signatory, still creates an alternative path for the next drought, which we know is probably not that far away.”

The climate emergency resolution, crafted by Climate Action Mendocino, cited drought among the many reasons for the city to endorse the declaration of a climate emergency. It builds on the city’s current environmentally conscious efforts like recycling water and cooling the streets by planting more trees. It also calls for rigorous policy practices, like updating the zoning ordinance and conducting energy and waste audits on city buildings. Helen Sizemore summed up the gist of the 16 letters and all the public comment on the item. “We all voted for you, and this is what we want,” she said simply.

Mayor Jim Brown did so, along with his colleagues, and praised the group for its work on the resolution. “You came prepared, with the science,” he said. “I met with Ms. Mitro (of Climate Action Mendocino) personally. She provided me information that I found very rewarding. So I really want to thank the Climate Action Group on their preparedness.”