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Water shortages hit North Coast farms

Issue Date: May 26, 2021
By Christine Souza
Cut off from district water this year, Mendocino County farmer Peter Johnson says he has developed a diverse supply of water, including “purple pipe” recycled water from the city of Ukiah to irrigate Bartlett pears.
Photos/Christine Souza
Peter Johnson says he has developed a diverse supply of water, including “purple pipe” recycled water from the city of Ukiah to irrigate Bartlett pears.
Photos/Christine Souza
The upper Russian River is a source of water for Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Post-1914 water right holders expect to receive notices of water unavailability this week.
Photo/Christine Souza

Describing the situation as "bleak," farmers in Mendocino and Sonoma counties, who rely on water from the Russian River watershed and Lake Mendocino, are bracing for curtailments of their water rights by the state water board.

Two years of significantly below-average rainfall and historically low lake levels at Lake Mendocino—now at 42% of capacity—have contributed to critically dry conditions, affecting water users in Mendocino, Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

Mendocino and Sonoma counties were the first in the state to receive a drought declaration from Gov. Gavin Newsom. The declaration, which now includes 41 counties, allows state officials to relax some restrictions on reservoirs and to aid endangered fish.

Frost Pauli, vineyard manager for Pauli Ranch in Potter Valley, said the declaration for the area means the State Water Resources Control Board can make "broad, sweeping curtailments that apply to any water right, even pre-1914 water rights."

The board stated last week that notices of water unavailability are set to be mailed this week to 930 holders of post-1914 water rights in the upper Russian River watershed. The mailing of notices typically happens just before water curtailments are announced.

Further emergency rulemaking for the Russian River is planned for the board's June 15 meeting.

Pauli said the water situation in the region "is definitely looking bleak," adding that the Potter Valley Irrigation District has a strict allotment of water.

"We're going to have to manage the water really carefully, to try to irrigate at peak times to maximize that water and use it as efficiently as possible, so that we can make it through another year," said Pauli, who chairs the Mendocino County Farm Bureau water committee. "Growers are making tough decisions as far as which fields to irrigate and which fields to plant."

The Potter Valley Irrigation District receives a portion of its supply from the Potter Valley Project, a hydroelectric facility owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co. that generates a small amount of electricity and diverts water from the Eel River into the Russian River basin.

A lack of interest by PG&E to relicense the project, plus calls by environmental groups to remove the Scott Dam and Lake Pillsbury to return natural flows for fish, set in motion an effort by local entities to attain control of the important water source by federally relicensing the project. The current license expires in 2022.

The past two years of drought, Pauli said, highlight how fragile the local water system is, adding that removing the dams would "devastate" communities. The goal, he said, is to manage the resource for multiple uses.

"That's why it's really frustrating when we're up against folks who want to remove Lake Pillsbury and water that's diverted from the Eel River. The cascading effect that that would have on the communities in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties would be catastrophic," Pauli said.

The current drought, he said, "is an example of how conditions would be every year, without that lake and without that project."

Many area farmers, Pauli included, dryland farm winegrapes, using little or no water, but doing this means less production and less income.

Pauli said he and other farmers with land near Ukiah hope to receive recycled or reclaimed water from the city of Ukiah, a project in its second year to supply water to farms, parks and other uses.

Pear and winegrape farmer Peter Johnson, who farms in Ukiah and Redwood Valley, said he is cut off from district water in Redwood Valley this year, but has diversified his water portfolio and will use recycled water from the city to irrigate pears in Ukiah.

"We're in a better position than a lot of growers, especially at our Ukiah ranch, where we have access to recycled water. It's going to be a lifesaver this year," Johnson said, adding that he built on-site reservoirs to store water and has access to some groundwater.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said about 15,000 acres of winegrapes in northern Sonoma County rely on Russian River water, and many farmers say they plan to fallow or dry-farm crops. Livestock and dairy farmers in the south part of the county are experiencing the biggest challenges, she said.

"Many of our farmers are almost out of water already, and we have guys that have been hauling (domestic) water from the city of Petaluma since October and November," Tesconi said. "Some families are spending 10 hours a day and getting up in the middle of the night to haul water to meet the needs of their cows."

In western Sonoma County, beef and sheep rancher Joe Pozzi said water levels in his springs and reservoirs have been dropping fast.

"When those dry up, it just creates all kinds of other consequences that you have to deal with," he said, "whether it's hauling water, moving cattle or the extra time and money that goes into not having enough feed for the animals, or water, which is so critical."

Pozzi said he's "really concerned" about remote springs on specific ranches.

"If they dry up, what are we going to do?" he said.

Added costs due to the drought are challenging, Pozzi said, and will "make people reflect on how many cows they keep. Less cows means less water, but then less income."

"There's a lot of questions that need to be answered in the next month for a lot of cattle and sheep producers, as to how much they are going to invest in for next year," he said.

Mendocino County farmer Johnson said it is important that state policymakers invest in water infrastructure, such as storage.

"If people really want to have local food production in the future, they must invest in a water supply that's sustainable," he said. "To get that, we need government and regulatory support and long-term thinking by public policymakers.

"But as soon as these farms go out of business because they don't have a water supply, they're not going to come back," Johnson said.

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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