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State cuts off hundreds of Russian River growers, ranchers and others in drastic bid to save water

A day long dreaded by hundreds of ranchers, grape growers, farmers, water providers and towns arrived Monday as the state ordered them to stop diverting water from the Russian River watershed or be fined $1,000 a day.

State regulators issued orders effective Tuesday prohibiting about 1,500 water rights holders in the upper river — including the cities of Cloverdale and Healdsburg — from diverting water in an effort to preserve rapidly diminishing supplies in Lake Mendocino.

The State Water Resources Control Board also announced plans to curtail another 310 claims in the lower river watershed as early as Aug. 9 to try to slow the drawdown of Lake Sonoma. Another 500 or so rights in the lower river region between Healdsburg and Jenner remain subject to curtailment as conditions deteriorate.

The order is enforceable by fines up to $1,000 a day or $2,500 for each acre foot diverted. Violations also could draw cease-and-desist demands that could result in fines of up to $10,000 per day, according to the State Water Board.

The restrictions are part of a sweeping, unprecedented attempt to confront a historic drought that water managers fear could extend into a third dry winter.

That would leave the region to struggle through another year using only the water already captured in the two reservoirs. That water is not just for basic human health and safety. It also must be used to keep the river flowing for fish and other wildlife and provide for water rights holders along the way.

The Sonoma County Water Agency, which supplies water to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma County and northern Marin County, also relies on reservoir stores for its consumers.

Under a state emergency regulation approved in June, water rights holders are entitled to 55 gallons per person, per day for domestic water use.

But staffers for both Healdsburg and Cloverdale, which have the right to petition the state for waivers to draw enough water for the health and safety needs of their 20,000 residents, said they plan to negotiate with the state for extra wiggle room based on specific municipal issues.

Cloverdale residents nonetheless face substantial reductions, with the council expected to take up stricter conservation mandates at its Aug. 11 meeting, City Manager David Kelley said.

The city, currently under a 25% reduction mandate, could see its target raised to as high as 50%. Even that wouldn’t be enough to get residents below the 55-gallon threshold, he said.

But he said calculating city water use is challenging because the water diversion data includes water used to treat the water so that it’s potable, a matter that will be subject to consultations with the State Water Board, Kelley said.

Healdsburg already has imposed a 40% mandatory conservation rate on residents, limiting domestic water use to 74 gallons per capita per day.

Utilities Director Terry Crowley said the city also plans to apply to the state for permission to use enough water to support medical services, grocery stores, food services and others uses that would be considered “essential.”

He and other city leaders also think some watering of nonornamental vegetation and landscaping might be permitted in the interest of fire safety, as well as sports fields, if it can be negotiated within the state.

“For the time being, we’re going to continue to ask them (residents) to continue what they’ve already achieved, which is more than a 50% reduction,” he said.

The upper river curtailments were triggered by shrinking storage in Lake Mendocino, which by the end of the day July 26 had fallen below a designated threshold of 26,109 — reaching 26,097 acre feet.

An acre foot is equal to 325,851 gallons, or about the volume of water needed to flood most of a football field one foot deep.

Supplies in the reservoir had diminished 24,814 acre feet by Monday morning — a difference of 1,456 over the previous week, for an average loss of 208 acre feet each day.

Water managers are trying to ensure the lake does not fall below 20,000 acre feet before Oct. 1 — two months away — in order to reserve enough storage to limp through next year if another critically dry winter lies ahead.

At the rate the level has fallen over the past week, it would take about 23 days to reach the Oct. 1 target.

Among those most immediately impacted by the upper river curtailment will be those who depend on water diversions for irrigation and watering livestock.

Many around the region already have made painful decisions through the past several months as storage reservoirs have emptied, wells have run dry, forage for animals has diminished and feed skyrocketed in price. Some sold livestock, others dropped fruit from the vines to lower their crop load this year.

Now, those with water rights in the upper watershed north of Healdsburg can’t access that source, either, meaning grape growers and farmers will have to eke along without water to irrigate.

Bret Munselle, who farms 300 acres of wine grapes in the Alexander Valley with his father, Bill, and another 400 acres for different clients, said he’s still not entirely sure what that will look like.

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 said.

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.

Additional curtailment orders are expected to be issued as early as Aug. 9, affecting about 310 water claims in the lower river watershed, between Healdsburg and Jenner, water board staff members said.

Several hundred users in the river’s lower reaches appear on course to be spared that round of suspensions, based on complex calculations and analyses related to hydrologic modeling, sub-basin boundaries, percolation and water flows.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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