Where will California North Coast get its water if drought becomes common?
With parts of the North Coast facing what forecasters say is shaping up to be “extreme drought” this year, the region’s water managers are busy exploring near- and long-term options.
But new large reservoirs like Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino aren’t among them.
Even as the first of seven large reservoirs funded by the 2014 $2.7 billion California water bond is set to get under construction elsewhere in the state, agency officials and local lawmakers say the regulatory and political environment has shifted dramatically from decades ago when the Golden State’s big water catchments were constructed.
Beyond eking out capacity in the region’s existing reservoirs, the long-term answer for increasing water supply in the most stressed areas, they say, likely will be below ground, rather than above.
“We’re not going to see another large reservoir in the North Bay. That’s not going to happen,” said Assemblymember Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, whose North Coast district stretches from north Santa Rosa to the Oregon border.
The reason, according to Wood and other legislators and officials, is that the dam-building spree that led to the construction of thousands of dams in Western states in the first half of the 20th century focused on sites that were easiest to build logistically. And in the 70 years since then, the sites that were originally bypassed have become more complicated to consider because of evolving water rights, cultural preservation and endangered species laws.
“The best dam sites have already been built,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose congressional district spans the North Coast. “And even a great big dam is not going to create more water when you've got watersheds that are pretty fully appropriated and already captured.”
He pointed to Marin County’s seven reservoirs, two of which aren’t typically tapped except in the extreme drought conditions like what were faced last year. Huffman also noted that Lake Sonoma has not gotten close to running out of water, but Lake Mendocino has had multiple years of running low of water.
An example of the water rights and environmental law complexities of even existing reservoirs is the current political and legal turmoil surrounding the decommissioning of the Potter Valley Project in Mendocino County.
That includes a hydroelectric station that diverted water from the Eel River into turbines that have emptied into the east fork of the Russian River, which backs up behind Coyote Dam to create Lake Mendocino. Fisheries groups signaled their intent to sue former plant operator Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to remove what they call migration impediments, namely that water diversion as well as dams that create two Eel reservoirs, including Lake Pillsbury in Lake County, according to The Press Democrat.
One answer to the North Coast water storage challenge is to get the most out of the existing reservoirs.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which built and manages the dams at lakes Sonoma and Mendocino, has wrapped a two-year pilot test of a drought-sensitive approach to flood management, one of the agency’s key peacetime tasks. The conventional approach in the rainy season is to follow a complex regimen that guides ramping outflows up and down to keep a certain portion of reservoir capacity empty so heavy rains don’t risk a dam breach or call for a large emergency release of water.
But a statewide team of water researchers since 2013 has been working on a concept called forecast informed reservoir operations, or FIRO.
“A lot more is known about atmospheric science than 60 or 70 years ago, and that allows us to carry more water behind the dam,” said Nick Malasavage, Ph.D., P.E., chief of the operations and readiness division at the San Francisco District of the Corps.
Testing of the methodology started at Lake Mendocino in 2019. Malasavage said it has been shown to manage heavy “atmospheric river” rains like what came in 2019 as well as retain water for two drought years. FIRO is estimated to allow 5%-20% more reservoir capacity to be retained, compared with the conventional method. Lake Mendocino roughly holds about a one-year supply of water, and Lake Sonoma about two to three years.
“When we talk about a multiyear drought, we want to use this approach to buy one more year,” Malasavage said. “There is a physical limit to how much we can hold onto for one more year. There’s no new construction to do that, so that’s why we’re pouncing on that opportunity right now.”
The Corps is now working to officially change the Coyote Dam water control manual to use FIRO, and a test is being planned for using the method at Lake Sonoma.