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Mendo’s Water Mafia

“If you look at the cost of water today that some of our customers have, it's probably some of the cheapest water in California. Plain and simple.”

— Lee Howard, then-member of the Russian River Flood Control District, November, 2013, explaining why he thought the County should squelch John Pinches’s proposal to re-visit water arrangements between Mendocino County and Sonoma County.

Over the years, local construction industry rep Lee Howard has been among the most knowledgeable persons overseeing County infrastructure, especially water, serving several terms on the Russian River Flood Control District. In May of 2009, Howard used the above cheap water logic to argue that the Supervisors deny Supervisor John Pinches’s suggestion that the County investigate and possibly re-negotiate Sonoma County’s almost exclusive ownership of the water in Lake Mendocino as a fool’s errand that might upset the fragile cheap water arrangement that inland grape growers enjoy.

“If there’s some surplus, yes, we have some say,” added Howard. “But it’s their [Sonoma County’s] water and their water right.”

Back in the 50s my uncle, Joe Scaramella, was the only Supervisor to vote against that deal that gave Sonoma County 80% of Mendo’s diverted Eel River water to Sonoma County because Sonoma County was paying 80% of the cost of the Coyote Dam. Supervisor Scaramella urged his colleagues to be more forward looking and pay at least half the cost because someday Mendo would need that water. Like Pinches in 2009, Scaramella couldn’t get a second to even discuss the one-way deal.

Here we are in 2020 in a serious drought and Sonoma County is still getting most of the water out of Lake Mendocino at essentially no cost and selling it to their water districts and to Marin County for a very nice annual profit.

In June of 2009, in a three to two yes vote with John McCowen voting with Carrie Brown and John Pinches, the Supervisors decided that that conversion of rangeland to vineyards with associated wineries and tasting rooms should not be considered development and therefore did not need to be “supported by a water supply adequate to serve the long-term needs of the consequent density, intensity and use,” as unanimously recommended by the Planning Commission. 

This is still Mendocino’s official policy and stands in direct contrast to the County’s policy regarding water for marijuana growing which not only prohibits pot growing in most rangeland but requires much, much more than just a declaration of water availability before a pot grower can legally plant.

In the run up to the long-delayed, multi-million dollar General Plan update in 2009, there was extensive discussion at Planning Commission hearings with Planning staff, the consultants hired to update the General Plan, and members of the public representing both agricultural interests and water conservation interests about whether agricultural water use and winery development should be exempt from regulation or should be considered development needing some planning oversight. 

In the end the Planning Commission (including the timber and ag representatives to the Commission) decided unanimously to recommend that “all new water uses shall be supported by a water supply adequate to serve the long-term needs of the intended density, intensity and use.”

Unhappy with the Planning Commission recommendation, the Farm Bureau (mostly grape growers) and the Cattlemen’s Association sent letters to the Board of Supervisors asking that the requirement for adequate water be limited to residential, commercial and industrial development, since the Planning Commission's language, they said, “will allow for the interpretation of agriculture as development [and as] written this restriction on the development of water could effectively stop any new agricultural opportunities in the county…”

Translation: New vineyards would be restricted to areas where there was adequate water — and we can’t have that.

The Frost Protection Racket

Last March, Ukiah’s much ballyhooed $34 million “Purple Pipe Project” designed to propel clean processed wastewater to vineyards went live after years of planning and construction. The eight mile long pipe project was financed by a few million in state water grants plus about $30 million in long-term low interest loans under 2014’s Proposition 1 water bond initiative and can pump eight million gallons a day on average. Previously, the treated, fairly clean wastewater was put back in the Russian River, but thanks to the Purple Pipe, that ground water recharge is instead routed mostly to vineyards for irrigation and frost protection – at no cost to the vineyards. The City of Ukiah and its ratepayers makes the loan payments, not the grape growers.

Ukiah’s Purple Pipe Project was so demonstrably a vineyard subsidy — and not a City benefit — that Ukiah’s highly skilled water and sewer system manager (and former Sonoma County Water staffer and former Russian River Flood Control District Manager) Sean White even bragged about how effective it was when the project was christened in March by conducting a “mock frost event” which the system passed with flying colors. 

Yippee! We have successfully pulled off another giant giveaway for the Cheap Water Mafia!

“Frost protection is one of the main benefits the system is designed to offer grape growers,” White told the Ukiah Daily Journal’s Justine Frederiksen.

Ukiah grape grower Dave Koball agreed: “It went well. There was lots of water pressure and we had no issues. I used that water all last summer to irrigate and had no issues then, either. After we ran sprinklers fed by the Purple Pipe, we filled up our irrigation pond.”

Up and coming Farm Bureau spokesman Frost [sic] Pauli, son of sixth-generation Potter Valley grape growers and ranchers, Bill and Janet Pauli, said he used the water to fill up the irrigation ponds for his new vineyards near East Perkins Street. “We also had no problems during the test. It’s a great project!”

As if that wasn’t clear enough, Ukiah’s official position on the Purple Pipe Project says that it “was built to eventually deliver reclaimed water from the Ukiah Valley Wastewater Treatment Plant to approximately 650 acres of agriculture [grapes], 20 acres of pasture, and 15 acres of turf, including three parks and a school through a total of 38,000 feet of pipe. The project also includes a 66-million gallon reservoir, and a pumping station that can deliver 3,500 gallons a minute.”

A powerpoint presentation given to the Ukiah City Council bluntly summarized that the project’s main purpose: “Extraction of River water for agricultural use — irrigation and frost protection.”

Most of the time the Cheap Water Mafia calls themselves “agriculture” and seldom “grape growers” or “vineyards,” because they instinctively know that “agriculture” implies essential food and fiber, whereas, “grape grower” is a thoroughly non-essential but highly profitable booze manufacturer.

In 1924, the Potter Valley Irrigation District (PVID) was formed to provide irrigation water to the farmers along the East Branch Russian River. The district serves almost 400 farmers with rights to 22,670 acre feet of project water per year, for the irrigation of 4,905 acres (mostly vineyard) within a district boundary of 6,900 acres. Because there is very little natural runoff in Potter Valley, and the local geology is “non-conducive to groundwater storage,” the PVID is the only constituent that depends solely on Eel River water.

Starting with the Eel River Diversion into Lake Mendocino, then running through a complex network of pipes and ditches and riverbeds, the Ukiah Valley is one big water bowl — but it’s dwindling now that there’s a drought. It is centered around the wine industry’s giant publicly maintained vineyard pond called Lake Mendocino. But Sonoma County owns most of the Lake Mendocino water. And Lake Mendocino can get extremely low when a combination of water draws for minimal fish passage, or by Sonoma County, or for frost protection on top of drought conditions.

As senior water lobbyist and cheap water beneficiary Janet Pauli regularly points out: “The Potter Valley Project [i.e., the Eel River Diversion] provides the only source of water we have. It changed the Potter Valley economy, it changed the crops we grow and the livestock we raise. It has been a boon. We are completely dependent on this water supply for our quality of life and for our economy. It is critically important.”

So it’s understandable that the Grape Growers and their inland support network are well-organized and well-established to maintain the status quo, in full possession of three of the five Supervisor's seats.

But Ms. Pauli never mentions the cost of that “water supply” to the rest of us.

As the Friends of the Eel River (FOER) wrote in their “A River in the Balance: Benefits and Costs of Restoring Natural Water Flows to the Eel River”:

“The Potter Valley Project is really an irrigation project, but it is licensed by Federal Energy Resources Commission because it produces a modest 9 megawatts of power – roughly the same as a few wind turbines, or a couple thousand solar households. Being licensed as a hydropower project means the actual water users get the ‘abandoned’ water for the cost of transporting it from the PG&E tailrace – i.e., practically for free. And Russian River water users currently pay nothing for the water transferred into their system from the Eel River.”

FOER continues, “Many Russian River area users pay nothing to get diverted Eel River water. Others may pay a fee to a water wholesaler, but for the most part this charge is for transmission, treatment and operating costs, not for the water itself. Water in the Eel River, however, has real economic value. Hence, those who pay nothing for it are being subsidized. Furthermore, allowing water users to pay nothing for their use of the Eel River’s water has promoted over-consumption and socially inefficient use. For purposes of illustration, payment of as small a price as $30 per acre-foot for acquisition of water diverted from the Eel River could exceed $5 million per year. Rather than there being a cost from ceasing to divert water from the Eel to the Russian River, water diverted from the Eel River can be considered as having been subsidized for almost 100 years. Russian River area users of Eel River water have not had to pay the externalized environmental and other costs associated with diversion of Eel River water.

“Though development costs of such water supplies may be lower than some might expect, such development still requires expenditures. As noted above, the level of these expenditures, rather than a new or additional cost, can be viewed as what the Russian River area would have paid had they not gotten free Eel River water. Consequently the level of expenditures to develop alternative or additional water supply can be seen as a reflection of the level of subsidy that the Russian River area has received. In other words, each year the PVP operates as it has, the Russian River area receives free water that allows it to delay expenditures on an alternative water source. Ironically, the larger the expenditure to develop an alternative to free Eel River water is, the larger is the subsidy the Russian River area has received and continues to receive.”

Who Makes up the Cheap Water Mafia?

The Cheap Water Mafia has dominated the patchwork of Ukiah Valley Water agencies and districts for decades because they obviously have a significant vested interest in that unnaturally cheap water, so they’re the only organized group who’s always quick to put up a member for whatever water board, commission or agency needs one. And, once put forward, the Potter Valley electorate is guaranteed to vote in one of their own. The result, of course, is that they essentially regulate themselves and establish their own subsidized rates.

In general, the Cheap Water Mafia is the inland grape growers and their network of contractors, subcontractors, consultants, and key local officials. To get a snapshot of who’s running it these days, one need look no further than the recently formed Ukiah Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency.

When the state decided in the last drought that groundwater in the Ukiah Valley (and others areas, of course) was being drawn down precipitously, they required Counties to set up these uber-agencies to “manage” it.

Seeing such “management” as a potential threat to their water supply, guess who stepped up for key positions on the UVGSA Board?

The agency board is made up of:

  • The County of Mendocino (Supervisor Carre Brown, Cheap Water beneficiary and Potter Valley grape grower)
  • City of Ukiah (Douglas F. Crane, (who voted for the Purple Pipe Project, but at least is not a direct beneficiary)
  • Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation District (Alfred White, outspoken Ukiah grape grower)
  • Upper Russian River Water Agency (Richard Mack, realtor and Cheap Water fellow traveler)
  • Tribal Representative (Brandi Brown, token non-beneficiary member)
  • And Agricultural Representative (Zachary Robinson, grape grower)

The Agency also has a “technical advisory committee”: 

  • County of Mendocino (Supervisor-Elect Glenn McGourty, well-paid wine industry promoter and vineyard consultant, and soon to replace “retiring” Supervisor Carre Brown as Cheap Water Supervisor)
  • City of Ukiah (Sean White, Cheap Water technical expert)
  • Russian River Flood Control (Elizabeth Salomone, grape grower) 
  • Tribal Representative (Sonny Elliot Jr., token non-member)
  • Agricultural Representative (Levi Paulin, vineyard management company owner)
  • Sonoma Water Agency (Of course they’re in the loop! Don Seymour)
  • Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (Mike Webster)
  • And California Land Stewardship Institute (Laurel Marcus, advocate of the bogus “fish friendly farming” that some vineyards claim to employ) 

One would think that local Native Americans would at last wise up to the fact that they're being used as window dressing for a gang of grasping land wreckers and water wasters. 

Anybody who goes on record to endorse Glenn McGourty in the upcoming 1st District Supervisor election — which is a slam dunk for McGourty since his “opponent” Jon Kennedy seems to have given up campaigning — can also be considered a Cheap Water fellow-traveler, because these endorsements are a way to quietly signal that you’re on board and part of the Cheap Water juggernaut that has its clammy hands on every faucet in the Ukiah Valley while at the same time keeping a lid on rates.

So we were disappointed, but not surprised, that the Willits Environmental Center’s Ellen Drell wrote a flattering endorsement for McGourty. Ms. Drell, an ardent advocate of hyper-regulation and enforcement of legal marijuana growers, is apparently thrilled with the prospect of the Cheap Water Mafia’s newest herd bull taking over for Carre Brown.

Last but not least is this McGourty endorsement from Heidi Dickerson, former senior wine-industry PR person and former Chief Aide to Congressman Mike Thompson, a grape grower and head of Congress’s “wine caucus.”

“As someone who has been involved in a variety of jobs and roles in Mendocino County, I am proud to endorse Glenn McGourty for First District Supervisor. His experience as Mendocino County’s UC Extension wine grape advisor, and the countless workshops and events he has been involved in attest to his work ethic and responsibility. He wrote the ‘Organic Winegrowing Manual’ and contributed to ‘Cover Cropping in Vineyards’ which attest to his forward-thinking ecological approaches. Agriculture needs to be represented on the Board, especially when it comes to the First District. Glenn McGourty is the perfect successor to the extraordinary Carre Brown.”