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Santa Rosa cuts back recycled water allocations to agriculture by two-thirds as drought looms

Low lake levels

Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino are experiencing their lowest levels in over 40 years, in contrast to other years at this time. Lake Mendocino stands at 44% of capacity at 81,000 acre feet; while Lake Sonoma was measured at 63% of its capacity at 245,000 acre feet. An acre foot represents 325,851 gallons.

At a time of year when farmers have counted on tapping into recycled water to get them through the hotter months, water officials in Santa Rosa have severely cut back the amount of water they will deliver. They blame the drought.

“We’ve never seen it like this before,” said Elise Howard, spokeswoman for the city’s Water Reuse department.

Starting Monday, the city will cut its allocations to its agricultural customers to a third of what they normally get. Those 60 users will share 600 million gallons of recycled water. In the average water year, the city doles out 1.7 billion gallons.

The individual allocations are based on water use over the last three years. Either way, it’s going to be slim pickings for crop growers who depend on the recycled water received through wastewater use among businesses and residents as well as storm runoff.

With a winter that brought below average rain nearing its end, most water, weather and farming stakeholders and officials are comparing the conditions to those not seen in four decades.

The rainfall total this year was 12.73 at the Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa between Oct. 1, 2020, and April 13, 2021, the National Weather Service reported. Normal precipitation is 33.2 inches.

At the Napa County Airport, only 7.42 inches fell in comparison to the seasonal normal of 18.49 inches. And at the Kentfield station in Marin County, 14.53 inches hit the ground in contrast to a normal amount of 44.83 inches.

“It’s going to be a hard year for water,” Water Reuse Deputy Director Emma Walton told the Business Journal.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration blames the short supply on La Nina, a tropical weather phenomenon off the shores of South America that often results in fewer winter storms for much of California.

Impact in Sonoma County

Santa Rosa doles out reclaimed, or recycled, for farmers through wastewater collected from about 230,000 consumers, treated at its 75-year-old wastewater plant on Llano Road and stored in retention ponds.

About a year ago, the water department considered the possibility the COVID-19-spawned government shutdowns of businesses such as restaurants may lead to a shorter supply of water funneled through the plant.

Instead, residential customers used more water.

Walton said the flows to the plant are “highly variable” but “very dependent on rainfall” to service the regional plant’s users in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Sebastopol, Cotati and unincorporated areas in Sonoma County.

Wineries were already given a heads up in December as to what kind of water year to expect when they received word they would get no extra water to protect their buds from frost in the spring.

In neighboring Napa County, Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said some vineyard tenders have considered reducing their crops.

“If there’s new planting, without a water supplement, that’ll be a struggle,” Klobas said.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau is bracing for impact in terms of dealing with the lack of irrigation water available in this water year.

“Some farmers have thinned out their herds, and some dairyman are asking for a variance, and others are planting less,” Executive Director Tawny Tesconi said, referring to the farmers asking for exceptions to the rule.

Tesconi believes it’s time to talk about more drastic, stepped-up efforts to gain more access to water given California’s drought situation plaguing the state in most years.

“We have to get water distributed differently,” she said.

Walton noted the harsh reality the water department’s customers are facing and urged them to “not rely on recycled water” and find a “backup supply.”

This means wells, though some agricultural users are even hauling water.

Walton provided a dire water outlook to the Santa Rosa City Council on Tuesday alongside her counterpart in the potable division, Peter Martin.

“As time goes on, we’re going into more drought messaging,” Martin said.

Cities that buy water from Sonoma County Water Agency, such as Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park and Petaluma, will be asked to conserve, he said.

So might the state, which will make its projections for future water known this summer.

The Sonoma County Water Agency ended up cutting off Santa Rosa Junior College’s secondary agricultural water supply to its farm from April to October “due to the drought,” Dean of Agriculture Benjamin Goldstein said. Its primary supply comes from the city of Windsor.

The ramifications of the region’s lack of water have prompted Sonoma County Water officials to place a rubber dam in the Russian River at Wohler Bridge near Forestville, a measure of pooling the water on low water years.

For Walton, the tinderbox dry year takes her back 2013, when the city hosted awards for “ugliest yards,” which these days is a good thing.

Low lake levels

Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino are experiencing their lowest levels in over 40 years, in contrast to other years at this time. Lake Mendocino stands at 44% of capacity at 81,000 acre feet; while Lake Sonoma was measured at 63% of its capacity at 245,000 acre feet. An acre foot represents 325,851 gallons.

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