Due to ongoing drought and a limited water supply, farmers and ranchers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, California, are awaiting adoption of an amended emergency order that would extend last year’s curtailment of water rights in the Russian River watershed.
With the 2021 curtailment order set to expire in July, the State Water Resources Control Board Division of Water Rights is proposing to continue restrictions for an additional year. It plans to revise the regulation in early May.
Farmers say they are readying for what is coming, while they seek to negotiate the details and mitigate potential impacts.
“The curtailment regulations adopted last year affected all water-right holders regardless of seniority,” said Frost Pauli, a vineyard manager in Potter Valley and chair of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau water committee. “What we’re trying to accomplish, working with the State Water Resources Control Board, is to have some sort of implemented curtailments.”
Pauli added, “No one is saying, we don’t need curtailments or that we don’t recognize that there’s a drought. We can do it in a way that is beneficial for everyone, including the environment, and have a stepped-up curtailment, not just a wide-sweeping (regulation) and slam the door on everybody.”
Pauli said every ranch that he farms has different water rights, and generally this varies from farmer to farmer and location to location.
“Some (ranches) have riparian rights. Some have regular water rights. Some have no water rights. Some have contract water. Some have recycled water. So it’s very, very complicated,” he said.
One significant change to the proposed regulation is inclusion of a voluntary, locally driven water conservation program that would work with curtailments.
The approach, developed by a committee of local stakeholders, including Farm Bureaus in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, would be an alternative to the broad-brush approach taken by the agency last year.
The draft curtailment was discussed during a public workshop held in Santa Rosa and online last week. The workshop was hosted by state water board staff.
Mendocino County Farm Bureau Executive Director Devon Boer, who took part in the discussion, said the purpose of the voluntary approach is “to implement a locally controlled program that offers an option to curtailments.”
“In 2021, everyone was curtailed in the upper watershed with little consideration of water-right priority,” Boer said. “That drove the conversation to try to develop a program that recognized water-right priority, but at the same time, may avoid or extend a full curtailment by allowing participants to share in the available water.”
Water-right holders in the Russian River watershed are eligible to participate, and those who enroll are required to do monthly water-use reporting. The state water board would issue supply projections that are updated regularly and adjust allocations based on water availability.
Water transfers and exchanges are permissible under the program, and the state water board could curtail non-participating water users in order of water-right priority.
Sam Boland-Brien, the state water board’s supervising engineer, said the level of participation needed would be based on available water supply, hydrology over the next few months and any drawdown that may occur.
The program’s success, Boer said, is dependent on high participation among water users. Water would be allocated based on average monthly reported use for 2017-2019. The amount to be conserved depends on water-right priority and source of water.
“Participation is a key,” Boer said, adding, “There needs to be a mix of senior water-right holders with larger diversions involved to balance the junior holders being able to get some water.”
“We have met with members in the past months to introduce the program,” Boer said. “But we need to have answers to key questions like (this): How much water will each diverter be able to use in order to sell the program? Those interested or affected should take a look at the draft regulation and plan to comment.”
Water rights attorney Philip Williams, representing the city of Ukiah, said, “This program is an attempt to strike the right balance among diverters.” He added that there is the potential that conditions become so dry that the program may not be workable, but added, “I don’t think we’re there yet.”
Chris Scheuring, senior counsel for the California Farm Bureau, said Farm Bureau supports and encourages voluntary, local conservation efforts that may free up opportunities to administer water use more flexibly.
“Through the voluntary program, local water users may be able to get together and flexibly manage the water by combining their water rights and conservation targets for the good of the region and economy,” Scheuring said. “Clearly, some water users are going to be feeling pain this year, and we hope that the state board continues to work towards the best possible administration of curtailments to minimize that.”
Pauli emphasized that he would like to work together with the agency so that there is limited harm to the local economy and the environment.
“It’s drinking water, obviously,” he added. “But it’s (also) the economic ability to sustain these communities; all of the local economy is generated by ag.”
Last July, due to worsening drought conditions and dropping water levels in Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, the state water board issued curtailment orders to water-right holders in the Russian River watershed.
The orders make it illegal to divert water from the Russian River, except as needed to ensure human health and safety and minimum instream flows.
To maintain flows, water is released from Lake Mendocino, a reservoir north of Ukiah. The supplemental water protects multiple fish species and municipal and agricultural uses, and during drought, it accounts for all the water in the river.
The state water board is expected to adopt amended emergency regulations for curtailments in the Russian River watershed on May 10.
For information regarding the state water board and drought activities in the Russian River watershed, go to www.waterboards.ca.gov/drought/russian_river/.
The Russian River, shown with a limited supply of water last season, is challenged by this year’s drought. The state is expected to extend 2021 curtailments, with some revisions, in May. Photo: Christine Souza