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North Bay water agencies, farmers tap into restrictions, prayers with NOAA’s dry winter outlook

With the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting Thursday another La Niña ushering in dry conditions for the greater Bay Area, North Bay water agencies and farm groups have wasted no time expecting the worst.

The news of NOAA’s 2021-2022 winter outlook comes amid the North Bay experiencing a “severe” drought — meaning substandard grazing land, a prolonged fire season and stressed trees.

Despite a few inches of rain on tap this week, the stakeholders predict the region will continue to suffer the effects of another dry year.

“If this situation persists, we could see businesses go out of business,” Napa County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said. “We need to get into a conservation mode. It’s very much top of mind for growers. All farmers are extremely cautious.”

Lake Hennessey, the main water source for the city of Napa, stands at 56%. That leaves the amount of water left in the lake at 17,000 acre feet. Last year, the city’s 80,000 water users on more than 25,000 connections consumed more than 13,000 acre feet, Deputy Utilities Director Joy Eldredge indicated.

“This is not a good feeling,” she said.

The city asked for voluntary conservation of 15% in April. Three months later, officials set the target higher at 20%, hoping to achieve that goal by mandating irrigation to only two days a week. The users complied, and the city conducts “early morning drought patrols” to ensure they do. Still, Eldredge remains worried about the future of back-to-back drought years, despite recent rainfall.

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“A couple of rainstorms doesn’t end this drought,” she said.

The worrisome situation stretches across the North Bay from Solano County to Marin County.

“It sucks for a lot of people right now. A lot of people are out of resources,” Stemple Creek Ranch owner Loren Poncia told the Business Journal. “We need a good 20- to 30 inches of rain to fill up our ponds to get us back to normal.”

The Tomales cattle rancher emphasized the timing of the rainfall as being crucial to making up for the absence of moisture. But too much, too fast poses problems as well, he cautioned.

“There are two important rainfalls — the first and last,” Poncia said, citing March or April’s rain totals as even more critical than October’s to germinate the grasses.

“And we need drinking water,” he said. “I’m not worried. I’m freaked out. For a lot of people, this is their livelihood. We just have to hope and pray.”

Lucy Croy, Marin Municipal Water District’s water quality manager, would agree, stressing more concern if the drought dominates 2022.

When asked where does this story end, Croy responded: “That’s what a lot of us are thinking.”

In the meantime, Croy said her agency is placing continued restrictions on water users through the winter season, with no end in sight as to how long they’ll go.

Come Dec. 1, no irrigation will be allowed. Since July, landscaping has been limited to one day per week for spray irrigation and two days for drip systems in a seven-day period. Also on Dec. 1, the water agency will restrict water used to fill swimming pools to topping off only. No initial filling or refilling will be allowed.

Excessive water use — defined as a household with a family of four consuming more than 65 gallons per person, per day — will be fined. Fines range, but for instance, households consuming 100 gallons per person, per day face a $55 fine.

The Marin Water agency has imposed mandatory restrictions since April, asking its residents to reduce water use by 40% to coincide with California Gov. Gavin Newsom declaring a drought emergency. Newsom has requested a 15% cut across the state.

In turn, the state’s Department of Water Resources Control Board has asked the Sonoma County Water Agency to cut back on its draw from the Russian River by 20%. The water agency exceeded that threshold with a 23% reduction.

“We’re ahead of the curve on that one,” Sonoma County Water Assistant General Manager Brad Sherwood said. “What we want to see, in our picture-perfect scenario, is a parade of storms bringing 25 inches of rain by the end of the year. That will give us a good jump into the January-to-March months. But we don’t want it all at once.”

Even when it rains, the water agency manager warned, the spigot to this week’s deluge of rain in a series of storms could be turned off anytime based on the history of weather in Sonoma County. He cited 1988 as starting out in a similar pattern in October.

“It was wet. Then, it dried up,” he said.

Sherwood agreed with Poncia that one month, in particular, needs to deliver the precipitation — March.

“January and February are our wettest months, but what’s really critical for our reservoirs is the month of March,” he said. “Right now, it’s way too early to tell what winter’s going to bring.”

NOAA’s winter outlook released Oct. 21 provides a short-term view of the weather forecast from December into February.

With La Niña, the Bay Area lies on the dividing line of dry or wet, warm or cool conditions, based on its latitude. The tropical weather phenomenon marked by a cool water mass in the Pacific Ocean off the shores of South America influences weather patterns and often results in dry springs and summers for the North Bay.

This winter’s outlook calls for a 33% to 40% chance of drier-than-normal conditions. It also shows equal chances for above- or below normal temperatures.

Still, the winter’s dramatic turn from an unprecedented dry spring and summer in 2021 into a season with a promise of unloading at least some rainfall improves the drought, NOAA officials pointed out.

“What we’re seeing is the short term. We’re seeing quite a wet pattern, so you’ll still see improvement there (on the drought),” NOAA Operations Prediction Branch Chief Jon Gottschalck told the Business Journal.

When NOAA unveiled its winter outlook in October 2020, the United States was emerging from its hottest September since 1880. The 10 warmest have all occurred since 2005, sparking elevated interest in climate change.

Last year at about this time, NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center Deputy Director Mike Halpert said 2021 was shaping up as “the most widespread drought than we’ve seen since 2013” for both ends of the state to just south of the Oregon border.

Susan Wood covers law, cannabis, production, biotech, energy, transportation, agriculture as well as banking and finance. For 25 years, Susan has worked for a variety of publications including the North County Times, now a part of the Union Tribune in San Diego County, along with the Tahoe Daily Tribune and Lake Tahoe News. She graduated from Fullerton College. Reach her at 530-545-8662 or susan.wood@busjrnl.com

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