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Board moves forward with plan to create water agency

A river with riparian vegetation and reflections of trees in its surface.
The Russian River in Ukiah, May 19.

August 8, 2022 — The Board of Supervisors agreed in a narrow vote last week to approve the idea of a water agency. During budgeting in June, the board agreed to allocate $250,000 from the PG&E settlement to form the agency.

And, to comply with a new law, SB 552, which requires drought planning, the board agreed unanimously to formalize the drought task force into a standing committee, consisting of Supervisors Glenn McGourty and John Haschak. At the moment, the Department of Transportation is in charge of water issues, but McGourty told the board that he thinks the county should create a water resources team consisting of the drought committee and county staff collaborating with experts at the U.C. Davis Cooperative Extension. Some of them, including McGourty himself, have already done water studies in Mendocino County. In 2012, McGourty led a study on ag water use in the Navarro River watershed.

CEO Darcie Antle offered a quick calculation of how much she thinks it will cost to hire a consultant for a quarter million dollars. “If you are going to be payin ga consultant $200 an hour for roughly a thousand hours, our staff would be required to attend the meetings as well to stay current,” she said. “I believe that happened last year, where I had Sara Pierce on most of the meetings, and also Judy Morris or Steve Dunnicliff, as well as Brent, who helped coordinate all the calls with CalOES. So for every consultant hour you’re probably looking at two or three hours of staff time…if we’re going to do the grant writing, and I don’t believe we want to pay a consultant that amount of money to help write our grants. We have another contract out for grant writing. Typically, for every grant, it’s costing us anywhere from six to ten thousand dollars per grant, so it’s going to add up quickly. I would estimate roughly, with the staffing level that we’re out, we would be doubling the amount.”

Haschak favored another proposal, by Department of Transportation Director Howard Dashiell, to use internal staff. “I just don’t think that we need this consultant, who’s going to be working 58% of the time at $200 an hour to do these things,” he said. “I think that we can do it internally. The long term is, we need to put it out there to get a person who can learn the ropes and learn the business and provide that over a long term. Because this is a one-shot deal, and we don’t even need it.”

But McGourty argued that the subject matter is too complex not to bring in experts who are already connected at the state level and are alert to funding opportunities for local projects. “Mr. Chairman, I’m wondering if you could pull up the MCWA implementation plan and go to page 14,” he remarked. “There is a task list that has been identified, based on stakeholder comments. I think this might be helpful to Supervisor Haschak, about the complexity of what he’s expecting to sort of spontaneously happen.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde reminded the board of his position on the use of public money for water districts. “I’m not convinced of this allocation at this time,” he said. “Supervisor McGourty, I heard you say that very little has been done since the water agency was disbanded. I actually think that’s not accurate. It may accurately describe some of the inaction of some of the water districts in our county. I don’t think it accurately describes some of the action of many of our water districts in this county, during the time that the county water agency was going. And I think the unevenness of leadership by the water districts throughout the county, some failing to do their job, looking for a handout but not willing to charge their customers enough to help themselves, other water districts in the county asking their ratepayers to pay what I would say are the state rates for water so they would have the resources to solve their problems and aggressively seek state grants. You know, there’s a disparity of leadership between the different water districts in this county, and I don’t want to reward the lack of leadership by some of the water districts with county funds.”

Devon Boer, the Executive Director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, invited Gjerde to a meeting to discuss the complexities. “We do have some of our residents who live outside of an actual organized district,” she pointed out. “And some of the unknowns that have been discussed, such as the water hauling extraction ordinance, which is going to the Planning Commission. We’ve got the Governor’s Executive ORder N722, which is being punted over to Environmental Health…those are the questions I’ve been receiving from individuals with wells outside of districts, who are now looking at various county departments that might be providing them with various directions, lack of oversight, and perhaps not having qualifications for looking at hydrogeology…that’s been the downturn of our county, is we don’t have any sort of specific level of expertise. We’ve got different staff in different departments that get punted…it makes it complicated for the applicant, whoever they may be, to get through the process…you know, I’m not going to get into a dispute with Supervisor Gjerde. I think that what I’m going to do is work with our local water districts, and invite him to come over to a meeting.”

The board voted 3-2, with Gjerde and Haschak dissenting, to approve the concept of working with the UC Cooperative Extension using up to $250,000, to create a water agency, contingent on a list of projects that will appear before the full board before moving forward. The list will have to be countywide, and any consultant who is hired will have to include objectives, milestones, outcomes, and staff time.

The drought standing committee is scheduled to meet next Monday at 9:00 am. The meeting is currently listed as the Public Health, Safety, and Resource Committee.

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.