Looking back: North Bay drought flows through 2021 with cutbacks, concern

In 2021, Mother Nature spared the North Bay from wildfire threats but failed to stomp out the lingering effects of the dreaded “d” word.

Despite storms fed by atmospheric rivers at the end of October and now December, water and ag officials insist this is no time to relax about drought concerns.

“The (recent) rain is wonderful, and it was unbelievable at the end of October as a great way to start the (winter) season, but we had a long break (in between),” Marin County Agriculture Commissioner Stefan Parnay told the Business Journal.

He said area farmers and ranchers were dealt huge blows to their livelihoods, adding up to at least $1.5 million in crop losses this past year.

Farmers refrained from planting on about half their acreage, and ranchers scaled back on their livestock. Some hauled in water, while others paid a high price tag to buy feed from out of state, when hillside grasses became bone dry.

Still, if October and December are indicators of recovery, the North Bay is off to a good start.

“We’re in a much better position. These are some of the wettest months we’ve had in a long time,” said Lucy Croy, water quality manager for the Marin Municipal Water District.

The agency, which encompasses seven reservoirs, took a reading after these recent storms. By Dec. 15, the storage among the reservoirs stood at 64% capacity or 51,069-acre feet, a significant improvement from mid-October’s level at about half that amount of water.

But a key source of water, the California Department Water Resources, remains steadfast on its announcement to cut allocations to 29 water wholesalers in the state to 5%, down from 10% of allocations last year.

“Despite a wet start to the water year, conditions have dried out since that first storm, and we are still planning for a below-average water year,” DWR Director Karla Nemeth said in a statement. “That means we need to prepare now for a dry winter and severe drought conditions to continue through 2022.”

Conservation is key

Napa Deputy Utilities Director Joy Eldredge said the city’s conservation efforts also aren’t going away anytime soon.

On July 20, the city reduced irrigation time to two days a week. Breaking the rules even came with the threat of fines.

“We knew it was going to be a bad year,” she said.

In turn, Napa’s water customers obliged, cutting back their use from an average 18 million gallons per day to 13 million by the end of summer.

Now, Eldredge hopes the winter months don’t prompt the water users to let their guard down. She makes the case that with the short days in this season, they may consider “not irrigating at all.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a drought emergency this summer, requested the state’s residents and businesses reduce water consumption by 15%. In the North Bay, the state had also asked the Sonoma County Water Agency to cut back on its draw from the Russian River by 20%.

The wholesale agency that serves eight cities and water districts has funneled the main river’s rainwater into one of its three groundwater storage banks. It also plans to get the other two in Sebastopol and Occidental up and running by fall of 2022 with funding from the state.

It’s also taking its battle to fend off drought to the computer screen, with a program that uses data modeling of past years to gauge “how short” the water supply will be, General Manager Grant Davis noted. The agency has also developed a model to better manage water releases at Lake Mendocino.

“We saved 11,000-acre feet by doing that,” Davis said. “We need more atmospheric rivers to get us out of the drought.”

In July when the U.S. Drought Monitor showed the most extreme conditions in 20 years throughout the West with three-quarters of California in the red, the North Bay cultivated creative ideas to harness and conserve water, from users ranging from small hair salons to large ranches.

In the case of river excursion operators serving tourists, some companies threw in the towel temporarily, while one hair salon used a biodegradable version for her clients. Water well drillers got more business than they could handle. Golf courses reduced irrigating sections of their grounds. At least one gym was known to have placed a timer on showering among its members.

Drought also delivers fire danger

Coming off the Tubbs, Nuns, Kincade and Glass fires spanning from 2017 to 2020, there’s more to drought than what spills from the spigot for the North Bay. Drought often fuels conditions ripe for wildfire. In 2020, 4 million acres burned in California, a fire fight Cal Fire spent over $1 billion to overcome. The Glass Fire alone threatened the $5 billion wine industry in Napa.

But 2021 will go down as the year of the wildfire that never was for the North Bay, which looked on as blazes blanketed other areas of the state.

“This year was significant that we didn’t have a lot of wind events, but we had two big fires,” Cal Fire Deputy Director Nick Schuler said. He listed the Caldor Fire in El Dorado County that threatened South Lake Tahoe and the Dixie Fire that covered a massive region in Northern California and made history by crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range from west to east.

Schuler warned that winter rainstorms offer a slight reprieve but doesn’t go far enough to take away a threat that grows each season when the Golden State faces multiple years of drought.

“Even with these rainstorms, the vegetation will still be dead,” he said. “I think people forget that.”

Chalk Hill Ranch owner Charlie Martin hasn’t.

Martin, who endured the loss of buildings and scorched land during the Kincade Fire on his 300-acre ranch in 2019, told the Business Journal he suffers mental anguish similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) upon the height of every wildfire season as if he went to war.

The Healdsburg rancher breathed a sigh of relief when the threat of wildfire subsided and was called off in early November.

“We dodged a big bullet on fire,” he said.

Still, in the vast beauty of an area known for rolling vineyards over the Dry Creek and Alexander valleys comes the vast threat each year of it going up in smoke. 2021 may serve as a curtain call to 2022.

“I love where I live. This is what comes with it,” he said.

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