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A drought defying description: How California North Coast businesses are stepping up to the challenge

California’s four-stage drought plan

This is the state’s strategy for managing water conservation.

• Stage 1 involves voluntary conservation to realize a demand reduction of 10%.

• Stage 2 requires mandatory compliance as part of a water alert to achieve savings of 20% with five conditions.

• Stage 3 is a mandatory compliance with a water emergency to see a system-wide demand reduction of 30% for each water customer.

• Stage 4 involves mandatory compliance in a severe water emergency with a goal of reaching 50% demand reduction with mandatory water rationing required on a property-by-property basis. North Bay counties are currently between stages 2 and 3 as the drought becomes more severe.

Call it either “severe” or “exceptional” drought grips three quarters of the West. And the North Bay suffers. Well drilling is up, water trucks are in high demand and one community offers regular trucked in supplies to its residents to meet conservation targets. In the four-county area, here are ways the drought is having an impact on business and its customers

Herds culled, river shrinks

On Aug. 10, state regulators expanded their drought-era halt of Russian River diversions, ordering more than 300 additional grape growers, ranchers and other landowners to cease taking water from the basin as authorities seek to conserve rapidly diminishing reservoir supplies and meager stream flows. An earlier order had already curtailed water draws for more than 1,500 water rights holders, The Press Democrat reported.

Taking effect Aug. 11, the latest restrictions cover a range of Sonoma County water right holders in southern portion of the watershed, known as the lower river, though many are located in the Dry Creek Valley and other tributary areas around the middle reaches.

For agriculture the drought has resulted in tapping additional resources as well as reducing livestock herds, according to Tawney Tesconi, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“Farmers north of Healdsburg have brought wells back into operation to tap ground water or have resorted to dry farming and leaving fields fallow. Some members of the agriculture community are using holding pond water with liners to reduce evaporation and deploying rubber water bladders for storage.”

She also said herds of dairy cows, beef cattle and sheep have been reduced along with a decrease in crops from vegetable farmers due to a lack of water.

Water restrictions and the wine industry

Harvest of some varieties began in the North the week of Aug. 6. The Journal reported growers had taken some actions to deal with a lack of rain fall.

Glenn Proctor, a partner in wine and grape brokerage Ciatti Co. in San Rafael, said the outlook now for this year’s wine grape crop in the North Coast is “early and light.”

“It seems that on some of the early picks, clusters are not weighing a lot, and that is probably a function of berry size and berry number,” Proctor said. Well-watered vines tend to produce bigger grape berries and more of them per cluster. “(We’re) also hearing more reports of growers being affected by the water restrictions, which are continuing to be more severe during the summer.”

Despite restrictions have been in place to ban taking water from Sonoma County’s Russian River as lakes recede and river flows decline to extremely low levels with no rain in sight, many wineries in the area not directly affected, one wine group executive stated.

“Most of our grape growers do not draw water out of the Russian River, even under normal conditions,” said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Instead, she said most vines are irrigated by local, naturally replenished groundwater and off-stream reservoirs that collect rain and surface water during times of high flow to conserve water and protect other aquatic resources.

She said while wine grapes are a very water efficient crop, requiring only half as much water as other crops like, apples, cherries, peaches and pears, local grape growers and farmers, along with the community, are very worried about the impact of water shortages and drought.

“Over the past few months, grape growers have stepped up monitoring of soil moisture and are scaling back water use for minimal maintenance of overall vine health, especially in young vines. Green growth is being closely managed and tillage options are being evaluated to remove competition for water in the soil,” said Kruse.

Bret Munselle, who farms 300 acres of wine grapes in Alexander Valley with his father, Bill, and another 400 acres for different clients, told The Press Democrat he's still not entirely sure what restrictions on taking water from the river will mean.

He said he still has access to some low-capacity groundwater wells, though they are highly inefficient, but already has cut his harvest goals and water use enough to cut his water use by 50% this year. He added that he hopes to get the grapes for white varietals harvested by early Sept. without a lot of trouble, since the fruit is generally watered little in its final weeks. The reds may be trickier, since they mature later.

"This is like trial by error — just doing your best," Munselle told the newspaper.

California’s four-stage drought plan

This is the state’s strategy for managing water conservation.

• Stage 1 involves voluntary conservation to realize a demand reduction of 10%.

• Stage 2 requires mandatory compliance as part of a water alert to achieve savings of 20% with five conditions.

• Stage 3 is a mandatory compliance with a water emergency to see a system-wide demand reduction of 30% for each water customer.

• Stage 4 involves mandatory compliance in a severe water emergency with a goal of reaching 50% demand reduction with mandatory water rationing required on a property-by-property basis. North Bay counties are currently between stages 2 and 3 as the drought becomes more severe.

But he said he thinks everyone knew the curtailments were coming and had taken whatever measure they thought were necessary. Some, for example, did extra irrigating in advance to try to build up the soil moisture before "it all gets cut off."

Water "is all we talk about out here," he said.

"I think most growers are pretty proactive and took steps a month ago to start getting themselves prepared," Munselle said.

Demand for water trucks spikes, renewing debate over access

Unable to access as much as they need in potable water sources, some are doubling up on recycled water. While it is still being provided to some 60 vineyards and farms through a pipeline from Santa Rosa, what was once a free resource from treatment plants now costs users $12.50 per acre foot (325,851 gallons) in Santa Rosa as of January 1, 2021.

This fee will double in 2022 and double again by 2024, according to Tesconi, but access is being restricted as Santa Rosa also cut recycled water allocations to one-third of normal for these users.

In Napa County, water hauling from local cities to rural destinations has long been controversial. The Water Division of the Napa Utilities Department has set a limit of 6,000 gallons per month for water truck shipments to residents outside of the city, based on a recommendation from 2020 Napa Countywide Water and Wastewater Study.

“Provision of trucked water without limitations has the potential to promote remote development and growth in unincorporated areas where the water supply is not sustainable, and which may adversely affect agricultural uses” the study said.

However, some believe the 6,000-gallon allocation is insufficient, especially for those with more than one house on a property or livestock, while Ag and vineyard owners receive 80% of their 2020 water draw, said Patrician Damery, who operates a certified Biodynamic ranch in the Napa Valley, commenting on the Napa Vision 2050 plan.

In 2011, the Napa Sanitation District, or NapaSan, adopted a recycled water allocation policy with priorities for recycled water users that included major investments to expand the treatment process to accommodate increased recycled water demand.

According to Stephanie Turnipseed, community and educational information officer, the recycled water rate for 2021 in Napa, based on a peak period rate between April to November, is $1.93 per 1,000 gallons.

In 2015, two recycled water pipelines were created: the 5-mile Milliken-Sarco-Tolocay pipeline and the 9-mile Los Carneros Water District pipeline. These projects allowed NapaSan to increase recycled water production from 2,000 acre-feet to 3,700 acre-feet per year.

Users hooked up to two pipelines pay a flat monthly fee of $36.22 per 1,000 gallons, based on meter readings at customer sites. Four large customers that irrigate golf course properties contract for a reduced rate of $1.56 per 1,000 gallons with an agreement to purchase 150-acre feet of water from April to November.

Got a tank, there’s free recycle water in Healdsburg

Healdsburg residents were asked to reduce water consumption by 40%, but in July townspeople had achieved 54% reduction in water use (up from the trough of 58% earlier).

The sharp cutback on water use in Healdsburg is based on two factors. First, there’s a ban on irrigation except for five city properties — downtown plaza, recreation park, community center soccer fields, Healdsburg High School and at the new roundabout. Second, there has been widespread adoption of a residential free recycled water storage program.

“As part of our stage 3 water regulations, we launched an innovative residential recycled water program on June 21 offering to supply residents with up to 500 gallons of recycled water per week free of charge if they purchase water storage tanks, pumps and hoses, and place tanks in their front yards within 75 feet of the curb in front of fences for easy access,” said Bryan Diamantini, recycled water coordinator for the City of Healdsburg.

Residents place tanks in front yards, on porches, next to sidewalks by the street or hidden away behind shrubs and covered with a dark protective blanket to block sunlight and prevent algae growth. Recycled water must be used within 24-to-48 hours for the same reason.

So far, there more than 778 residents have applied for this service. Terry Crowley, Healdsburg Utility director, said 30 more residents are on a waiting list with 20-30 more applying for this service each week.

“We are exceeding our goal,” Crowley said. “For us the challenge involves finding enough water truck companies available, and with drivers to staff them. The city contracts with four water hauling firms and also provides a lawn sign for participants stating that these residents are using recycled water so please do not report them for violating water restrictions.

The Healdsburg free water offer has increased demand for water storage holding tanks, said Kyle Oblad, sales manager for poly tank sales at National Storage Tank in Santa Rosa, a distributor that sells a wide range of polyethylene tanks made from a flexible synthetic resin in a variety of capacity sizes. These tanks are obtained from three manufacturers, Snyder Industrial Corp., Bushman USA, and Norwesco with locations in Merced and Chowchilla.

National Storage Tank maintains a large on-site inventory with several on the lot sold or awaiting delivery and setup.

“Water storage tank prices have increased 50% to 60% over the past 6 to 8 months with an order fulfillment time that grew from two weeks to two to three months today,” Oblad said. “We saw manufacturer price increases of 7% in both December and January. We’ve sold more than 50 tanks since June in response to the Healdsburg free recycled water program along with higher demand for agriculture and commercial water storage.”

He said plastic water tanks range in price from $440 for a 330-gallon tank, to $700/$800 for a 500-gallon poly tank. Smaller poly sizes are available along with large capacity tanks from 1,000 to 5,000 gallons. Steel tanks, made by National Storage, are used in vineyards, other farm applications and for fire suppression purposes. Vineyard operators prefer steel tanks in 50,000 to 150,000-gallon sizes.

“An aftermarket for used and reconditioned tanks can be found on Facebook and Craig’s List. One popular tank being used by several Healdsburg residents is the 275-gallion Tote water storage tank enclosed in a steel mesh surrounding net priced at about $180 each (with two needed to hold the 500-gallons offered in the Healdsburg recycled water program.”

Oblad said that in addition to the tanks, homeowners need to buy a one-half or one horsepower electric pump ($200 to $400), a wire cable to connect to the house outlet, piping as well as hoses and nozzles to spray water on lawns, trees and vegetation along with tank covers.

Seeking relief by drilling

Californians are digging new wells at an average rate of between 7,000 and 15,000 per year, according to the California Department of Water Resources.

The cost is not cheap, starting at more than $16,000, and there are several factors to consider, according to Nolan Irwin, owner of Irwin Well Drilling of Fulton, a firm established in 1962 with single day, or it may take weeks or up to a month in rare cases.

“Our water crisis was 20 years in the making. Today we are drilling deeper wells. Those thinking about a new well should be aware of their present water needs, use habits and the condition of their existing well.”

Irwin said most people don’t understand what is happening underground. Even if the North Bay starts getting heavy rains, it can take five years for this water to permeate the ground to the water table.

”Well owners must understand their consumption level and collect information on their systems and that of neighbors with wells. Don’t just think because a neighbor is running out of water that you will, too. But water is drawn out over time and a slow downward flow trend can go unnoticed until there is a major drought.”

He said a 15-gallon-a-minute flow rate may have declined to 3 gallons per minute, and the property owners want a new well. But an old well should be capped to avoid cross contamination. Capping an old well can run to $14,000 or more.

In some cases, the bottom of existing well pipes may only be a few feet beneath the surface of a shrinking aquifer, resulting in a dry well — a condition seen in San Joaquin Valley is fighting the drought Valley.

For Solano County: Lakes give some short-term backup

Roland Sanford, general manager for the Solano County Water Agency, a water wholesaler for Solano cities and their residents, said the local water supply “is in much better shape” than elsewhere in the North Bay. He pointed to Lake Berryessa in southeast Napa County, where the reservoir capacity is at 70% of capacity, totaling 1.6 million acre-feet. Annual use and evaporation totals about 300,000-acre feet.

“Things are looking okay for this year, and perhaps next year, even if it is critically dry,” Sanford said.

He said the weak link in the county’s overall water supply chain involves water coming through the State Water Project’s North Bay Aqueduct that is giving Solano and other counties just a 5% allocation after a long dry period reduced Sierra snowpack.

“This means we have to buy water from the Bureau of Reclamation as well as the state. We cannot

continue to rely on a single source, and while this solution has been great for a while, now we need diverse alternatives in our water portfolio.”

Vallejo has held back on requiring stringent water restrictions, but that is changing, according to

Beth Schoenberger, operations manager of the city’s water department, after the city declared it was moving into stage 2.

“The city is fortunate when it comes to available water. Vallejo is an older city and has an excellent water rights portfolio … to tap multiple sources such as Lake Berryessa and 2 different water rights from the Delta,” as reported in a Vallejo Times-Herald article.

American Canyon customers are under a stage 2 policy with a 20% water use reduction requirement that bans using water for gardening, landscape irrigation, washing vehicles or equipment between noon and 6 p.m. Also banned are washing sidewalks, driveways, parking areas, tennis courts, patios or other paved areas or filling a new swimming pool, spa, pond or similar recreational water basins.

For Marin County: Water scarcity sets records

Marin County supervisors in May declared a drought emergency, paving the way for the county to access relief programs.

“Ranchers have been importing water by truck to keep their animals alive and reducing their herds. With far less vegetation for grazing because of the drought, animals are eating imported feed shipped from other states at high costs to the ranchers. Marin crop producers have fallowed approximately 150 acres, or about 50% of the 300 crop acres in the county,” the county reported

The county reported rainfall over the last 18 months had been the lowest in 140 years and Marin Water, one of the two primary sources of water reported its reservoirs levels were at levels not seen in 40 years. Both have declared emergencies and called for mandatory reductions in use by its customers. The county supervisors have even waived environmental health fees for installation of residential gray water systems.

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