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Drought Task Force to form water resources team

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

The standing committee is charged with organizing a multi-agency approach to preparing for all things water-related.

August 16: The Drought Task Force Committee met Monday morning to hammer out more details about how to form a water agency, now being called a water resource team. But questions about where the entity is going, and what it will ultimately do, remain.

The formalization of the task force, which is now a Board of Supervisors standing committee currently meeting under the rubric of the Public Health, Safety, and Resource committee, is part of a state mandate to respond to the drought. While potable water and ag water are top of mind at the moment, the scope of the drought is immense. And the extent of local expertise is unknown, with regional experts scattered among 42 water agencies. There are no licensed hydrogeologists in Mendocino County, and hydrologists are thin on the ground.

The county did not use all the funds from last year’s $2 million grant from the State Department of Water Resources to haul water from Ukiah to Fort Bragg. That program was administered by the Department of Transportation, which is where the water agency is currently housed. DoT Director Howard Dashiell gave committee members Supervisors John Haschak and Glenn McGourty an update on the remaining money.

“If you just look at the contract commitment we’ve got, like, eight or nine hundred thousand dollars for sure that’s available, but if we don’t start hauling water and we don’t meet some of those contract commitments, it could be a million. Those are the estimates…I looked at the grant eligible activities, and didn’t see a lot of flexibility there. Some of the other things like, I know the community would really like to do groundwater monitoring in many of our basins, and trying to get a handle on what the capacity of some of our aquifers are, I didn’t see those kinds of activities, which have been popular in the past, as eligible under that particular grant.”

In the meantime, the state is opening up applications for $300 million in urban grant awards, and Round Valley won a grant of close to half a million dollars to monitor groundwater in Covelo.

For now, the Board of Supervisors has agreed to work with the UC Davis Cooperative Extension to hire a consultant to come up with proposals for countywide water projects. The process of hiring the consultant could take four or five months. The county hired GEI Consultants last year to work on establishing a standalone water agency. Depending on how much more work they do on their current $306,000 contract, there is between $40,000 and $80,000 left over.

Dashiell told the committee what he’s looking for, in response to his request for proposals from a consultant. “A lot of times I’ll put out a proposal for a bridge — I’m sorry to keep using road and bridge examples, because that’s really what I know,” he began. “But I know I want to get from this side of the river to the other side. And often I’ll get a proposal that just blows my socks off on how to do that. So to some extent I’m looking for whoever proposes on this, how to take this bucket of things we said we want, and gives us a nice proposal on how to do that. And obviously, that’ll be translated into a contract the Board and the public will get to look at.”

Devon Boer, the Executive Director of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, wants more clarity on who will be responsible for what. “In terms of the consultant, I’m still not 100% clear on what role UC potentially could play,” she said. “Who is going to be in the role of the standard everyday water agency requirements related to the quagga zebra mussels, some of the issues with water rights up here on the east side of Ukiah, the USGS gauge and other things, are sort of the everyday responsibilities of the water agency…if there’s going to be money expense, we want to see it be productive and complementary to what’s happening, and at this point in time, I’m just not sure, personally, where this is going.”

During the budget workshops, the Board authorized $250,000 from the PG&E settlement funds for the water agency. Earlier this month, they agreed to spend up to $190,000 a year on assembling the team. If the money is not spent, it will go back into the PG&E fund.

Jim Shields, the manager of the Laytonville County Water District, urged the committee to compile the expertise he says the county already has, and argued for a five-member technical advisory committee that would prioritize capital projects. “Water production is overseen and managed by local government public utility professionals who are the true experts in water related matters,” he said. “They’re the most valuable resource the county has available to rely and depend on at this time for their expertise and professional insights into water related matters. What we need to do is send out a letter to all the water agencies in the county, requesting they get this information to us…I believe this is something we need to get started as soon as possible.”

Deborah Edelman, the water program manager at the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District, said the water resource team will be just one part of the drought response. “Once the water agency is up and running, it’s going to be addressing things beyond just getting water into taps,” she told the Board. “Including stormwater management, including invasive species, like the quagga zebra mussels, and, as Supervisor McGourty mentioned, eventually, almost certainly, flooding. So the scope of work is more than just the current emergency of drought and getting water to people and farms. So I just wanted to mention that. And one thing that was not reflected in the GEI implementation plan is that much of the boots on the ground work that’s being done by the water agency in those areas, such as the quagga zebra mussel monitoring, is currently being done by the Resource Conservation District, in our contract with the water agency.”

Most of the people who called in to the meeting were part of a countywide steering committee assembled by GEI Consultants to provide information about regional water issues and make suggestions as to what’s most needed. Many of them argued against hiring a consultant again, but the Board of Supervisors already voted 3-2, with Supervisors Dan Gjerde and Haschak dissenting, in favor of McGourty’s proposal to hire someone who would help put together a team.

“At the end of this consultant’s term, the county will be left with, not a stand-alone water agency, but a team,” Dashiell summarized.

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.