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Drought concerns plague state

With severe drought conditions plaguing California and a decreasing groundwater supply in Sonoma Valley, water supply is a top concern for the Sonoma County Water Agency and area agricultural producers.

Since Jan. 1, 2013, Sonoma has received only 7.6 inches of rain. Normally, the Valley gets 33 inches of rain in a calendar year.

With no precipitation in sight over at least the next two weeks, water agency Chief Engineer Jay Jasperse said drought conditions are real in the Valley. Ukiah and Mendocino County are the driest they’ve been since 1894, Jasperse notes, while Sonoma is experiencing the third driest year on record.

And drought seems to be affecting all of California, with record low rainfall throughout the state. On Dec. 9, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republican Rep. Jim Costa asked Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a statewide drought and call on President Barack Obama to make a federal declaration. The Congressional members wrote, “… we believe it would be prudent to declare a state drought emergency now and to request a broad federal disaster from the president as soon as possible.”

After two dry years, in June 2008 and February 2009, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declared a statewide drought. In March 2011, after a wet year, Brown rescinded that drought declaration.

But the Congress members explained, “After two years of dry conditions, we are faced with these challenges once again.”

If the governor declares an emergency drought situation, it would activate the state’s emergency plan and activities such as water conservation, water transfers and close weather monitoring will begin. If a presidential emergency is issued, the state will receive disaster relief from federal agencies.

On Wednesday, Dec. 18, Brown asked staff from state water, agriculture and emergency services agencies to form a drought task force and advise him on whether to make an emergency drought declaration.

Japserse said if the government does declare an emergency drought, the water agency, which is separate from the state’s water project, will not be directly impacted, though there may be some benefits for agricultural producers.

The water agency, which is headquartered in Santa Rosa, was created in 1949 as a special district by the state legislature and provides flood protection, water supply services, water sanitation and wastewater disposal. The agency sells water in Sonoma and Marin counties and contracts with the Valley of The Moon Water District and the City of Sonoma. The agency also manages 14 groundwater basins in the county, with six wells, and runs a volunteer well-monitoring program in the Sonoma Valley.

“We have this drought condition overlain with groundwater depletion areas we have seen, so it’s going to make this interesting in Sonoma Valley over the next year,” Jasperse said.

But extremely low water storage levels in Lake Mendocino, one of SCWA’s two reservoirs, are“the most immediate worry,” according to Jasperse.

The water agency is petitioning the state’s Water Resources Control Board for a temporary order to change the management regime governing operation of the water supply in Lake Mendocino to allow for more flexibility in the timing and volume of water releases. The hope is to better distribute water to people and fish in the area. The agency is also working on projects to look at water supply reliability and study weather patterns to better forecast drought and flood conditions, allowing the agency to better prepare for dry (or wet) seasons.

Marcus Trotta, SCWA hydrogeologist, said the agency’s other reservoir, Lake Sonoma, which supplies water to the Valley, Santa Rosa, southern Sonoma County and northern Marin, is much larger and in better condition, at nearly 70 percent full.

And drought is only one of the Valley’s water challenges. Over the last decade, groundwater levels have been declining in the Sonoma Valley, Trotta said, noting Sonoma, El Verano and unincorporated areas southeast of Sonoma are seeing the largest decreases of a few feet per year. The decreasing groundwater levels, especially in Sonoma Valley, Jasperse said, are not just a factor of drought, although decline is certainly “exacerbated” because lack of rain has not recharged aquifers.

While some shallow wells are drying up, it’s actually the deeper aquifers that are experiencing the most decreases. SCWA is conducting a number of studies to simultaneously examine the cause of decline and boost the supply of groundwater.

The only option in many cases, he said, may be to dig deeper wells, further depleting deep aquifers.

Trotta said he hopes the water agency will find a more long-term solution to creating more water supply options and reducing demand. The agency is currently focusing on using storm water to recharge groundwater supply by building ponds and contouring lands so water flows over it in such a way that it permeates the ground.

The issue of groundwater is even more complex, Trotta noted, because California is one of the few states that doesn’t have a statewide regulatory program permitting groundwater use – only water quality is regulated. He said this may be because the diversity of California’s geography and geology makes it difficult to have one specific rule, but this means water managers and agencies like SCWA play a much more crucial role in monitoring groundwater and working with locals to address concerns.

Groundwater and surface water are closely connected,” Trotta said, “and an example of that is Sonoma Creek, which for much of its reach is directly connected to groundwater.” SCWA does do a limited tracking of stream flows there, he noted, adding one area went dry in November. The Sonoma Ecology Center will do more routine stream flow measurements in Sonoma Creek and some of its tributaries to help the water agency better understand the connection between surface water and groundwater in Sonoma Valley, according to Trotta.

Tito Sasaki, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit, grassroots organization that has represented the interests of the county’s farmers and ranchers for nearly 100 years, said the drought situation is bad but there still may be a chance of rain.

For vineyards, he said, grape vines won’t need much water until early next spring when they bud, but growers may need frost protection water and then irrigation water. “Currently, those who depend on collected rainwater are very worried. Their reservoirs are still unfilled,” Sasaki said. “If we don’t receive rain this winter, they may have to sacrifice old vines so that the young vines could receive any water then available.”

Hay farmers, Sasaki noted, are also hoping for rain by early January so they will not lose their next crops.

Grape growers are in a better position than many other producers, he notes, because vineyard irrigation requires a lot less water than other crops.

Cattle ranchers are also feeling the effects of the dry year, as grazing grounds are nearly bare. Sasaki said many ranchers have to buy expensive hay imported from other states. As a result some cattle farmers are considering reducing the size of their herds, while others are maintaining their herd size only by spending more money on feed.

Sasaki says in comparison to areas in the Central Valley such as Paso Robles, which have one-third less precipitation than Sonoma, Valley producers are not in as bad of position as they could be. He also points out that through organizations like the water agency’s Basin Advisory Panel, which he has served on for over five years, water authorities and stakeholders are working together to identify issues and prepare for declines in water supply.

Sasaki wants to see an increase in the use and availability of recycled water at more reasonable rates as a partial solution to the drought and declining groundwater supply.

“In all, the (agricultural) situation can get really bad if a substantial amount of rain doesn’t come in a month or so,” Sasaki said. “If dry weather continues, we will have a general drop in the production of crops … and economically it will show up as negative.”

Peter Haywood, who owns Haywood Estate Winery, with 90 acres of vineyards nestled off Gehricke Road, has been growing grapes since 1976 and said the dry conditions have just started to affect him and his wine industry peers.

Haywood noted how growers rely on three sources of water: rain water, water stored in reservoirs and collected during storms, and groundwater. “We have a significant problem right now, presuming we get very little rain, and that is we have a ground profile that is relatively dry,” Haywood said. Out of his four reservoirs, three are mostly empty. “Since we don’t have water in res or rain, suddenly just now we are dependent totally on groundwater.”

Haywood said he will begin irrigating next month, and will prune for a smaller crop. The crop yield will also be smaller as plants adjust to the lack of water by producing less fruit, he explained.

“Farmers get used to dealing with changes of nature, every year there is a different challenge and … we get through it by changing methods of how we produce,” Haywood said.

He added that if the drought persists and groundwater continues to decline, there will be more serious talks throughout the state to regulate groundwater.

“We (growers) have to be conserving the water that we have, because it’s our livelihood,” Haywood said, quick to point out the city and rural landscapes use substantial amounts of water and it is not a matter of vineyards using less water and not the town. “Everyone has to do their part to conserve.”

“It’s not just people who are served by reservoirs who need to pay close attention. In many areas where our local groundwater supplies are declining, we are encouraging well users to conserve,” Trotta said.

Jasperse noted that the SCWA’s water contractors have a state-mandated Urban Water Management Plan that is implemented to regulate and conserve water in emergencies. Currently, conservation is voluntary, but if the dry weather continues, Jasperse said, the next phase of the plan with mandatory conservation may be put into motion.

The water agency does year-round conservation through various programs, including the Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership, but conservation efforts will increase as the drought continues. Jasperse said the agency is urging people to turn off irrigation systems as plants don’t need much water right now.

Even if there is a sudden surge of rain, Jasperse explained, the water agency is still looking for ways to better manage supply to mitigate emergencies in future dry seasons. He said it would take a few storms to even begin building supply because the ground is so dry that there will not be much water runoff.

In the short term, the water agency is looking at a holistic approach to conservation, Jasperse said, especially urging people and producers who rely exclusively on water from Lake Mendocino, like Healdsburg, to conserve water.

In a more long-term effort, SCWA is working to gain more tools to deal with droughts through a series of integrated projects and ideas from various groups within the agency. The water agency is initiating a five-year groundwater management plan and working with its Basin Advisory Panel to address the declining groundwater supply and implement integrated projects to not only boost supply, but to better manage and conserve water. At a Dec. 12 meeting, the panel looked at a project at Montini Preserve on Fifth Street West that addresses flood control and groundwater recharge, allowing more water to seep into the ground to build supply.

The water agency, Trotta said, is also expanding its recycled water program through its sanitation district plant on Eighth Street East.

Jasperse urged people to get involved in the water agency’s efforts to effectively manage the water supply and make better use of water by participating in community meetings. SCWA will address water issues and conservation at the Jan. 22, Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Comission meeting, with more details yet to be announced. For more information on the water agency, visit sonomacountywater.org.