Water Woes

by Bruce Anderson, October 3, 2007

"No river should reach the ocean." —Stalin

Not so long ago there was so much water in the summer time Russian River you could water ski at Healdsburg. Where did all the water go? Why has inland Mendocino County gone from abundance to red flag scarcity?

People, lots more of them, lots more demand on the Russian River's finite flows, lots more interests claiming the water, lots more complicating bureaucracy. All this and 1905, which is when a large portion of one watershed's largest river was put into the watershed next door, when the Eel was umbilically attached to the Russian by a mile-and-a-half cord.

In 1905, a largely Chinese labor force hand dug a tunnel 5,826 feet through Snow Mountain at Potter Valley through which rushed a year-round portion of the South Fork of the Eel River. The diverted water powered a huge pair of turbines on the Potter Valley end of the tunnel, and the electricity thus generated illuminated Ukiah, adding significantly to the wealth of a San Francisco entrepreneur named Van Arsdale. Once the water had turned the lights on in Ukiah it flowed into the upper Russian River as surplus water, water without value, water unclaimed except by the farmers and ranchers of Potter Valley who quickly moved to ensure that they would get it for nothing forever. It isn't forever yet but the Potter Valley boys are into their fourth generation with all the water they can use and then some. Farmers and wine grape growers from Ukiah to Jenner are similarly blessed.

The Russian River all the way to Healdsburg, prior to the Eel flowing through the Chinese tunnel at Potter Valley in 1905, went dry in the summer time. Suddenly, in the year before the big earthquake, there was such an abundance of summer time water in the Russian River that resorts and high dives appeared on its banks from Ukiah to Guerneville.

A hundred years later the high dives are gone because there are so many people taking water out of the unmonitored, un-gaged river, if it weren't for the diversion of the Eel River at Potter Valley the Russian River would again dry up in the summer months.

The first dam on the Eel is named after the enterprising Van Arsdale. It created Lake Pillsbury to ensure that there would be enough summer flow in the Eel to divert at Potter Valley for Ukiah's electricity. When Van Arsdale silted up, as dams inevitably do, Scott dam was built on the Eel to take over Van Arsdale's water reserve electrification function. It has since silted up too, as has Lake Mendocino, the first dam on the Russian River built in the middle 1950s to catch much of the water flowing through the Potter Valley Diversion. The Mendocino County supervisors, the late Joe Scaramella dissenting, voted 4-1 not to participate in the building of Coyote Dam behind which would rest, everyone assumed, the infinitely ample waters of Lake Mendocino. In the dry year of 2007, Lake Mendocino is so low it looks like a big mud puddle, and its downstream dependents in places like burgeoning Santa Rosa have been forced to enact serious water conservation measures.

The old water deals don't look too good today, although it's hard to blame pre-industrial Ukiah for wanting clean power or Van Arsdale for bringing it to them. It's less forgivable of Mendocino County supervisors, circa 1955, to have given away both Mendocino County's and Humboldt County's water. Mendocino County supervisors thought Coyote Dam cost too much, and few people, except for Sonoma County's farsighted water bureaucrats, thought the water streaming year-round through the mile-and-a-half tunnel at Potter Valley and down into the Russian River's parched summer beds, had any value at all. Humboldt County signed off on the 1905 diversion and hasn't been consulted since although its mighty Eel is nearly as battered and as overdrawn as the Russian River, to which the Eel still gives warm weather life.

Sonoma County has always gotten Potter Valley diversion water for nothing. Sonoma County sells it to Marin County, particularly the dry towns of Northern Marin, for pure gain, the sales product costing nothing more but the pipes and valves to get it down the Russian River. The Sonoma County water business, overseen by Sonoma County supervisors, is that rare public bureaucracy that turns hefty annual profits.

As wells go dry all over Mendocino County this year because last year's spring rains were insufficient to replenish the ground water they depend on, and the Russian River is tapped out, Mendocino County's idea man — some say wrong idea man — supervisor John Pinches of the north county, says he thinks he's got the answer to the inland county's water shortages. Pinches wants to siphon off two percent of the mainstem Eel River's winter flow at Dos Rios.

"All that water winds up in the ocean anyway," the supervisor observes in an irrefutable statement of the obvious. "Why not take a little bit of it for the people of Mendocino County who need it? We're always talking about low cost housing in Mendocino County but there isn't fifty acres anywhere with the water to build it."

The Pinches Plan, in total, would amount to an annual diversion of about half of Lake Mendocino's capacity and cost a quarter of a billion dollars to purify and pump to holding tanks in Redwood Valley from where it would be made available to communities straddling the Russian River as far south as Hopland.

One of the many ironies involved in Pinches' plan is there's already considerable water processing machinery 35 miles away in Willits. Willits' treated sewage water is emptied into Outlet Creek, which flows northeast and on into the Eel. Presumably, if Pinches' plan were to become reality, and even if it were funded and became reality, that reality is at least a decade away, Willits would be drinking water it had already once bled of impurities before Willits sent it into Outlet Creek and on into the Eel near Dos Rios.

Pinches' many critics say his plan would not only violate the Eel River's protected federal status as "wild and scenic" if embraced it would encourage downstream development. Pinches counters by pointing out that Humboldt County towns continue to be copiously watered by the Eel because Humboldt County municipalities were grandfathered in when the Eel was declared "wild and scenic." Pinches also maintains that he simply wants to "get Mendocino County in line" for water money if the Governor's nine billion dollar water bond measure is passed in November. The Governor's plan is basically an updated Peripheral Canal scheme that would ship water to the desert megalopolis of Los Angeles from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta where the two mighty rivers meet to feed San Francisco Bay. The Governor has wrapped his scheme in a few green-ish conservation proposals.

But even if Mendocino County gets in line for three-quarters of a billion Pinches' proposal is vaguely estimated to cost, Mendocino County has always been a low-priority for projects that require large sums of state tax money. The irrepressible Pinches, however, points to funding for the Willits By-Pass. "We got that funding because we had a place in line for transportation money," he says. "We should do the same for water money."

The supervisor's water plan is the only plan out there. And Mendocino County, especially inland Mendocino County, is drying up because the water that might ordinarily be available to it belongs to Sonoma County. Pinches' plan has the advantage of being the only plan to specifically address Mendocino County's water shortages, which have now become chronic and border on critical. Pinches' plan also has the disadvantage of being promoted by a man perceived as conservative, Mendocino County being hopelessly divided along the liberal-conservative fault line it's impossible to discuss the water issue, and most issues, without an automatic taking of sides by persons at each end of the great divide. Many people oppose the Pinches Plan simply because Pinches suggested it. And many people support it simply because Pinches thinks it's doable and because the persuasive supervisor has easily beat back the plan's detractors because he's a superior propagandist. And Pinches' two percent of the Eel plan is the only plan, so far, and is unlikely, given the size of the supervisor's megaphone, to be shelved in favor of much less costly but far more innovative conservation and catchment ideas suggested by local water researchers like Rachel Olivieri, a Willits mail carrier who probably knows more about North County water than anybody in that population.

Ms. Olivieri begins with the specific suggestion that Lake Mendocino's 69,000 acre feet of stored water, almost all of it the property of Sonoma County because Sonoma County largely funded the construction of Coyote Dam, has a 122,000 acre foot capacity, the difference being allotted for flood control space. Why not use that capacity for Mendocino County rather than go to Pinches' new and expensive plan?

"In an average year Mendocino County gets 19 million acre feet of water in rainfall," Olivieri says. "If there were a five foot ring around the county the county would fill up to that depth every winter. We have 2% of the state's land mass, but we get 15% of state's rainfall. Five acre feet falls, on average, on one acre of Mendocino County ground. An acre foot can easily supply two families for a year, which is the amount of rain that falls on them. If we captured water right where it falls, and used it at least twice, 'stacking the functions,' as they say, there would be plenty of water everywhere in Mendocino County. Why not capture water where it falls and store it there?"

The Mendocino County Sheriff's Department isn't known to be on the cutting edge of ecological technology but, As Olivieri noted recently when she walked past it, "The sub-station at Covelo is designed to capture rainfall, re-directing the water to a pond and windmill, thus creating a kind of natural water and energy loop, and that project isn't quite finished. So there are people in local government not only thinking about how to conserve water they're doing it."

Rachel Olivieri's ideas, long-term, are sound. They naturally appeal to many county residents, many of whom, especially people living in the county's vast outback, already trap and save water through ingenious systems of their own devising. But water shortages are much more acute, or soon will be much more acute, in Mendocino County's more densely populated areas, especially the 101 corridor. Fort Bragg has reached the limits of its growth without new sources of water and has enacted a series of conservation measures which enables the city to successfully provide its citizens with water during the dry months. Willits and Ukiah are talking about drilling into what is assumed to be their lush aquifers although neither the quantity nor the quality of the water trapped beneath their valley floors is known. But from Redwood Valley south through Ukiah and on down to Hopland, most of the length of Mendocino County's stretch of the Russian River, the river has no more water to give. Neither does the summer time Eel upon which the summer time Russian depends. The well-documented exhaustion of the summer Eel hasn't prevented Sonoma County supervisor Mike Reilly from calling the water crisis a "regulatory drought." Reilly wants more water diverted from the summer Eel to make up historically profligate Sonoma County's shortfalls.

Mendocino County's supervisors make water policy but have no authority to enact it. There are half a dozen little water districts, each independent of the others, in the Ukiah Valley alone. They make water policy in isolation. And Sonoma County, despite having a water reserve twice the size of Lake Mendocino piled up behind the Warm Springs Dam, can send only a few drops of that water to downstream consumers for fear that it will drown fish in the 14 miles of Dry Creek used to transport Warm Springs water. Well, not drown the Dry Creek fish, more like blast fingerlings out of the summer stream bed if flows from Warm Springs aren't kept to a relative trickle. Dry Creek is home to coho salmon, an endangered species. If more dry months' water were released into Dry Creek, the feds say, the salmon would be one step closer to extinction because the baby coho would be destroyed by higher flows.

With all this water piled up behind the Warm Springs dam since 1983 when Lake Sonoma appeared behind it, the great irony is that all that water represents a hazard to baby fish. Sonoma County is talking about a 14 mile pipeline from Warm Springs to Sonoma County's collection point in the Russian River near Forestville at Wohler Bridge, but the pipeline is millions of dollars and many years away. For now, the pipeline is that 14 miles of Dry Creek ambling out of the hills northwest of Healdsburg and on down west of the Russian River where it waters some thirty wineries and finally into the Russian River at Forestville.

Because water shortages are becoming acute in the Russian River corridor, Sonoma and Mendocino County authorities are urging voluntary conservation measures which may or may not be working.

The whole downstream summer show is dependent on the Eel diversion, and the miraculousness of it all becomes clear when one becomes aware that it's all run out of an office on Santa Rosa Avenue, downtown Santa Rosa whose remote water technician can turn the water on or turn the water off for more than a million people from Ukiah to Santa Rosa. The water genie, though, performs his allocations according to a strict set of sales agreements determining who gets how much, when, old contracts to which Mendocino County is not a party.

Draws on all Mendocino County's water sources, even with building moratoriums in effect from Brooktrails to Hopland, continue to suck up both the summer Eel and the summer Russian River. River front property owners aren't required to gage how much water they take, and water district information from those many little fiefdoms is either non-existent or anecdotal.

Supervisor Pinches will probably get a place in the state line for water money, but that line is sure to be a long one, and Mendocino County, historically considered, is usually last in line.

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