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Fort Bragg’s Looming Water Catastrophe

Taking the “sudden” out of the almost-certain water use restrictions to come this summer is part of the purpose of the water emergency ordinance the Fort Bragg City Council will consider at its meeting May 26, Fort Bragg City Manager Tabatha Miller said last week.

Fort Bragg already has an emergency ordinance, with a phased-in set of cutbacks tied to (Noyo) river flows that top out at a 30% reduction. Fort Bragg actually did that in 2015 when low river flows allowed salt water into the town's water system. City government imposed a heavy set of use restrictions that made statewide headlines for, among other things, requiring restaurants to stop washing dishes and only use paper plates and plastic utensils. 

The new ordinance, Miller said, adds a “catastrophic water emergency,” option that would require Fort Bragg to cut its water use in half.

“Obviously we hope it never happens,” Miller said, “but it might happen.”

The city council has been looking at its options for building defenses against a water emergency fo the past several months, hearing reports at council meetings and in its Public Works subcommittee. The new reservoir built two years ago a few miles east of town has already proved a vital water supply cushion. It's always possible to build another reservoir, Miller added. But this is California. It's complicated 

Building another reservoir would likely trigger a new round of negotiations with the State Department of Fish and Wildlife, which has made it clear it already thinks Fort Bragg is taking at least its share of water from the Noyo River. State government has been pressuring the city for years to sign a series of “streambed alteration agreements” that would restrict the city's ability to take more water from the river. Pressure for those agreements increases every time Fort Bragg considers a major building project, Miller said.

In the meantime, city government is considering a range of options, from filtered shallow wells to desalinization. One of the more likely options, in Miller's view, is treating the city's wastewater so that it is clean enough to drink.

State government is also fully behind that option. From the State Water Resources Control Board's website:

“It is the intention of the Legislature that the state undertake all possible steps to encourage development of water recycling facilities so that recycled water may be made available to help meet the growing water requirements of the state.”

That option is squarely on the table in Fort Bragg. Miller noted that it's already being done in California and compares very favorably in cost to things like desalinization.

In the short run, Miller said, the city is topping off its reservoirs and water storage tanks and looking at making its Cedar Street storage towers (a new one was added there two years ago) deeper and taller.

In reality, there is not much Fort Bragg can do to drastically increase its water supply. Desalinization remains a distant dream, affordable by oil rich sheikhdoms, the US military, and practically no one else. The short-term is all about consumption, and in a few weeks the City Council will be looking at giving itself the power to require people and businesses in Fort Bragg to halve their water use. 

Like the Noyo River starting to drop in June, that's never happened before.

The Noyo always looks formidable at its mouth, but that is the ocean, not the river. Five miles upstream, a good athlete could jump across the Noyo in a dry September, when the stream is still keeping a community of 7,000, plus tourists, alive.

Last summer, the Noyo looked like a dry September creek in July. This past rainy season the “river” barely deserved the name. Just to the north of the Noyo, Pudding Creek has closed its mouth to the ocean, probably a month early. 

It's early May and it’s already a dry summer.

Jackson State Forest: A Forester’s View

California has nine demonstration forests, mostly in the coast range and lower reaches of the Sierra Nevada. Jackson Demonstration State Forest on the Mendocino Coast is by far the biggest. At 50,000 acres, JDSF is more than twice the size of the other eight demonstration forests combined.

The demonstration forests were founded after World War II, even as the state's timber industry — large companies like Georgia-Pacific and Louisiana-Pacific that are mostly gone now — were being allowed to liquidate the state's higher-value forests and nearly all of its remaining old growth trees Still, efforts were made at “progressive” forestry. The demonstration forests were founded to work mostly with university forestry departments, not necessarily the public directly, to test new logging methods and show what sustainable forestry did, and did not, look like.

The tree-sit currently underway in the Caspar Creek watershed of JDSF could, broadly speaking, come under that category of promoting progressive forestry and engaging with the public's interest. It certainly wouldn't be happening on private timberland, where industrial-scale logging continues apace, though not at 20th-century speed, out of the public's view.

Mike Powers has been chief forester at Jackson Demonstration State Forest for two years. He graduated from UC Berkeley's forestry school and moved to Fort Bragg in 1995. He's worked for JDSF for the past seven years. Powers has some experience trying to make the workings government fit the much faster-moving demands of the public. He's been an elected member of the Elk Community Services District, so he knows a thing or two about working with people as well as trees.

Powers' response to the current protest is pretty nuts-and-bolts. The logging that has raised people's ire is part of that 50-year project, he says. A series of plots along Caspar Creek were logged differently. Sensors placed in the creek are supposed to show changes in water temperature and flow, depending on the type and extent of logging. Powers said data from one phase of the decades-long experiment was collected this year and sent along to researchers. The effect on the stream of recent logging that has been the focus of protests is just now starting to be measured.

““It's a complex management scheme,” Powers said last week. “but the focus is on stream flows and canopy protection.”

Controversies over logging a couple of decades ago prompted changes in the JDSF citizens' advisory committee, which is supposed to allow for public input beyond the ongoing communication with universities, industry and regulators.

Amy Wynn, an environmental consultant in Fort Bragg, currently fills the advisory committee's public seat. She did not return a call requesting comment.

Kevin Conway manages all nine demonstration forests in California. He did an internship at JDSF when he was a sophomore at Humboldt State in 2000. Conway responded last week to whether JDSF old growth trees are being needlessly logged. There is actually a three-fold definition of what “old growth” is, he said, taking into account a tree's size, location and importance to habitats, as well as age. Conway didn't deny that there some bigger, older trees scheduled to be cut down. But, he said, building up the old growth stands that remain is the overall goal.

“We're very proud of that big tree component in our forests,” he said.

The more immediate threat to big trees on the demonstration forests is fire, Conway said. The Castle Fire last summer threatened a grove of ancient sequoias at Mountain Home Demonstration State Forest near Yosemite, Conway said. But the grove was saved and reforestation around it begun.

Fire has visited JDSF, too, mostly when it was owned by the Caspar Lumber Company before WW2, which typically burned before, during and after logging jobs, Powers said. The fire scars on big old stumps in the forest are clear evidence. The thick brush that grows in sunny spots throughout JDSF is evidence that burning hasn't happened there in a long time.

A wildfire just north of Willits last summer came within a dozen miles of JDSF's eastern edge. Powers said fire is on their mind a lot these days. Calfire’s Mendocino battalion chief George Gonzalez wasn't able to join week's interview because he was fighting the 200-acre “turnout” wildfire, in April, in the hills between Boonville and Ukiah.

“We feel like we're taking concrete steps to prepare the forest for wildfire,” Powers said. “Whether it's leaving a little more space between trees or next to roads— almost every project we have is really focused on those things now.”

Sheriff Says

Sheriff Matt Kendall didn't split hairs when he reacted to the verdict convicting Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin of murder in killing George Floyd last week. “I didn't like what I saw to begin with,” Kendall said. “I believe in the system, and when a jury of 12 people says he's guilty, he's guilty… Let's all talk like real people: do we think what happened there is OK?”

Kendall expressed some concern over the county's emergency readiness. The day after he asked the Board of Supervisors in April for a dedicated space for an Emergency Operations Center, he was told, he said, that the room where the equipment was stored would be needed for something else, and the Sheriff's Office had to come get its stuff. Now, he said, the EOC — which mainly coordinates communications and decision making in county- and region-wide emergencies, is in boxes in a couple of rooms at Sheriff’s offices on Low Gap Road. Kendall expressed frustration at the apparent low priority the county bureaucracy is putting on being ready for fire season. “I've got a lot of moving myself to do now,” he said. 

Fort Bragg Cannabiz

The Fort Bragg City Council had a special meeting Monday devoted to refining where, how and by whom cannabis can be grown commercially within city limits.

One decision before the council was whether to loosen restrictions on who can own and operate cannabis businesses in the city. The current rules, stricter than the state's, ban anyone with a previous felony conviction, other than cannabis related offenses. Members of the public, according to City Hall staff, have asked those restrictions to be loosened. State law allows local governments to pick which kinds of felony offenses, like those involving violence or embezzlement, would disqualify a cannabis business owner. Many details involving the nuts and bolts of cannabis growing were on the table as well. For one thing, outdoor grows are currently outlawed in Fort Bragg, but they don't have to be. Cannabis' typically huge water and electricity use and whether to regulate that — for instance by requiring growers to use recycled water — is in the spotlight. Also, whether or not to require use permits, which trigger public notice to neighbors on new or modified cannabis operations, was up for debate.

One Comment

  1. Bill Harper May 8, 2021

    Why are new tourist facilities being approved when FB is on water restrictions every year?

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