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Local News

Board talks drought funding, gives the nod to water pumping law

The front doors of a building with a partial brick facade. A sign reads, "County of Mendocino Administration Center."
Mendocino County administration building

The Board of Supervisors is still looking for money to fund a water agency and drought preparedness programs. A proposed ordinance to regulate extracting water from private wells and selling it off the property is on its way to the Planning Commission.

July 15, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors took up fire and water this week, with discussions about funding water projects, a water extraction ordinance, and a ballot initiative for a quarter-cent sales tax for fire departments.

The original tax proposal included money for county water projects, but the Board abandoned that portion of the plan after Supervisor Dan Gjerde launched a campaign against it, arguing that it was an attempt by inland water interests to win a subsidy for agricultural water. Gjerde and Supervisor Maureen Mulheren formed an ad hoc committee to research other avenues to fund county water projects. They turned in separate memos that arrived at different conclusions.

The Board has already allocated $250,000 from the PG&E settlement fund for a water agency, though there’s been no decision yet on how to spend it, or what the agency would look like.

Gjerde told the rest of the Board he had identified more money from the PG&E fund that could be used for water projects. He included an email from Deputy CEO Sara Pierce explaining that she had erroneously stated that $960,000 was available from the fund for grant matching. In fact, the remaining PG&E funds come out to a little over $1.2 million. Gjerde also expressed optimism that the state, with its $100 billion surplus, will come through with water funding.

In her memo, Mulheren wrote that last year, the Department of Water Resources only funded a small portion of the county’s water needs. Many state-funded projects, she noted, require a county match. She doesn’t think the county has the money to leverage grants, and provided a partial list of budgetary deficits, writing, “we are upside down in our health plan, have received only ¼ of the projected cannabis taxes and have an obligation to create a new wing of our county jail, all in excess of $10 million above our abilities.”

Mulheren serves on multiple bodies that deal with water policy in the Russian River watershed. When Supervisor Ted Williams tapped her and Supervisor Glenn McGourty to serve on a drought ad hoc committee, Gjerde complained, saying, “It’s curious that we would choose to have an ad hoc where both supervisors are in one of the three, so to speak, watersheds, and one of the two is not facing short-term drought issues. And I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’ve been outspoken about the fact that some of the Russian River water districts are undercharging for their water, but they’re still looking to the county for assistance, and I’m wondering if that’s the motive for keeping either Supervisor Haschak or myself off the drought ad hoc.”

Mulheren shot back, saying, “Supervisor Gjerde, your assumptions about my interests in water are incorrect. I am deeply interested in making our community have sustainable resources. If it’s going to make you drop the subject, I will yield the seat. Happily. Because the assumptions and the allegations that you are putting out in public are very upsetting to me…I would like to remove myself from the drought ad hoc.”

McGourty objected, saying that neither he nor Mulheren would show favoritism to their watershed. “I think my actions last year proved pretty well that your district benefited handsomely from the efforts of the ad hoc,” he noted. “When you look at where the water went that was hauled, it turns out that two-thirds of the water was delivered into the fourth district, and one third went into the fifth.”

Supervisor John Haschak agreed that more than one watershed should be represented on a body working on how to approach the drought, and Mulheren insisted on yielding her seat. The committee is now back to its original membership of Haschak and McGourty. Under a new Senate Bill, 552, which was signed into law last year, local governments will be required to have a standing drought task force, with demonstrable plans to address water shortages.

Haschak introduced another ordinance that he believes will help the county comply with SB 552, to regulate the sale of water from private wells. A group of volunteers from around the county worked with the drought ad hoc to draft the proposed ordinance, drawing heavily on laws already in place in other areas, including the coastal zone.

Sherrie Ebyam, of Willits, summarized some key points of the proposal, which hinges on the county hiring a hydrologist to make sure that production wells don’t draw down neighboring wells or the surrounding aquifer more than 10%; and to keep track of data submitted by applicants and gathered from meters. “This ordinance proposes regulating water extraction from groundwater wells from which the water is being sold and from which the water is being transported and used off the property,” she declared. “I’d like to make it clear that this ordinance is for extracting water in order to sell it, and not for general commercial purposes…its intent is to make sure use of our groundwater is sustainable, and to have mechanisms in place to adjust that use, should it become unsustainable. The implementation of this ordinance will tell us when groundwater is being overtaxed, and mechanisms will be in place to ratchet the use back to sustainable levels. The ordinance lays out a plan to respond to adverse effects that may affect the source well, a neighboring well, and ultimately affect the aquifer itself. Much of what this ordinance calls for, in terms of required groundwater well information, has been the law in the City of Mendocino since 1990. We also borrowed language and methodology from the Mendocino County Coastal Groundwater Development guidelines.”

The Board voted 4-1, with Williams dissenting on budgetary grounds, to pass the ordinance along to the Planning Commission for further development.

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.