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Born Yesterday: County Water Ad Hoc Visits the Valley

Summary: There’s no hope.

Tuesday morning, Supervisors Ted Williams and Glenn McGourty brought the County’s newly hired Water Agency “program manager” Josh Metz to Anderson Valley to chat with locals about the drought. The frustrating presentation was convened at the Boonville firehouse.

Mr. Metz dominated the first half of the meeting, answering simple questions with prolonged statements of the obvious. Most of Mr. Metz’s observations were administrative and funding-related — he referred to the need for “sustainable funding” more than sustainable water. Although Mr. Metz did mention the eternal possibility of raising Coyote Dam and maybe running some pipes around the Ukiah Valley.

Lake Mendocino is at an historic low

We’ve written a lot about water in Mendocino County and the Anderson Valley over the last three decades and we could have provided some useful background to the visiting, ahistorical County team, but the meeting was so dominated by Mr. Metz and a bunch of new-to-the-party questions from the audience that the session was more like a meeting of amnesiacs than water solvers.

As a public service at no charge to the County, let’s look at some relatively recent and still relevant Anderson Valley and Mendocino County water history.

Let’s begin with the famous “lost” Anderson Valley portion of the County General Plan written in 2008 by Gene Herr, Barbara Goodell and Kathy Bailey, which then-Chief Planner Ray Hall said he had requested from Valley locals, but which he later claimed to have lost and which was therefore not included in the Anderson Valley section of the General Plan Update, replaced by bland boilerplate from an expensive, outside consultant:

“Community workshops held in conjunction with the General Plan Update have highlighted some of the challenges facing Anderson Valley. Many participants cited concerns about a lack of affordable housing. Small residential parcels are in short supply and very few have been created in the last two decades. The average price of land has sky-rocketed. An influx of relatively affluent people from urban areas has pushed the price of property ownership out of reach for many residents, including a broad range of income levels from farm workers to teachers and other professionals. Water is another concern often cited in the workshops. A fragmented regulatory system and absence of basic information about amount, location, and quality combines with increasing demand to create uncertainty about whether there will be enough water available for the many competing uses. (The County’s three test wells have not provided useful data about water table depth and trends, while anecdotal reports say that water tables are dropping.) The Navarro River watershed is already listed under Section 303(d) of the Clean Water Act as impaired due to excessive sediment and temperature. A federal procedure established targets for improving water quality but did not adopt an implementation plan to enforce them. There is concern among some residents that increasing agricultural diversions may be contributing to unprecedented low flows in the Navarro during the dry season. Currently there is no public water supply with all residents relying on wells or diversions of surface water. Neither is there any community sewer system. Residents rely on individual septic systems. There is no official source of information about pollution or contamination in well water. The lack of public infrastructure limits the development of both economic activity and affordable housing. This, in turn, makes it difficult for children who were raised in Anderson Valley to continue to live here and prosper. Workshop attendees also cited a strong desire to avoid the ‘Napafication’ of Anderson Valley, particularly not wanting to see tasting rooms strung one after the other along every mile of highway between the towns. Taking up available commercial space to the exclusion of other businesses and opportunities.”

Notice their reference to “The County’s three test wells [which] have not provided useful data about water table depth and trends, while anecdotal reports say that water tables are dropping.”

Today’s visitors had no idea that the County had installed three test wells in Anderson Valley. Have they been abandoned? Last we heard they were waiting for more years of data to be accumulated before any conclusions could be drawn. Those years have now passed.

Next, let’s look briefly at how water permitting works in Mendocino County with an example from 2009, dated, but still applicable.

[AVA Dec. 2009]

LAST WEEK a Redwood Valley couple, Jeff and Maureen Taylor, got Planning Commission approval to subdivide their nine-acre property into four separate parcels. A big issue was whether there was enough water to support four parcels. The Planning Department and the Water Agency both insisted that the Taylors needed four test wells drilled and the results run through a hydrologic test to determine if there was adequate water on each. The Taylors had told the Planning Commission that if they were required to conduct time-consuming and expensive hydrologic studies they would simply withdraw the subdivision request and eat the cost of preparing it to this point.

THE POINT? When the Garden’s Gate project was approved last month [back in 2009] for up to 200 new residential units on a former vineyard site south of Ukiah [still undeveloped because the County never finished an “updated” traffic study], the Water Agency wasn’t even consulted and the Planning Commission wasn’t even in the decision loop. Chief Planner Frank Lynch insisted that because the draft Ukiah Valley Area Plan had vaguely alluded to water, there would be plenty of water for the large Garden's Gate development. Nobody mentioned water availability or hydrologic studies. A 2005 “will serve” letter from the Millview Water District, which had no technical basis whatsoever, was taken as proof that there would be water for the 200 homes when they were built.

THE TYPICALLY MENDO MORAL of the story? If you want to make a modest subdivision prepare yourself for many rinsings through the bureaucratic wringer. But if you want to build 200 homes with lots more water demand, all you have to say is you have a five-year-old one-sentence will-serve letter and you’re home free.

* * *

Before we continue with our mini-history, is it appropriate to ask where Mr. Metz came from and what qualifies him as Mendo’s latest water agency guy? At one point McGourty hinted at the answer when he said that back in 2009 Mr. Metz had helped McGourty with a casual survey Anderson Valley grape people did of themselves, concluding, of course, that those surveyed were very happy with their own water practices: "Grape Growers Congratulate Each Other" (August 2014).

Mr. Metz, a Humboldt State grad from the 90s, has some modest academic credentials which he rattled off — bachelor’s in this; master’s in that — but his selection as the new Water Agency guy probably has more to do with his long association with McGourty, not his history or knowledge of the water situation in Mendocino County or Anderson Valley.

After the intro, Supervisor Williams asked Metz what he thought the revived Water Agency would do and what it would cost. “We’re essentially a clearinghouse,” replied Metz, admitting that as currently proposed the Agency would have no authority to oversee or direct the 40 or so separate water agencies in the County. (They do have some authority, of course, but they’ve never exercised it.) Metz then told Williams that he thought the Agency might involve four or five water specialists, presumably including himself, at a cost of $750k to $800k, at least demonstrating that he knows the going rates for bureaucrats these days.

Toward the end of one his monologues, Mr. Metz reverted to the Mendo’s standard canard’s and which, unfortunately, is about all any of these $150k/year bureaucrats have to offer: “Hopefully by November we’ll get some rain.” A couple of women in the audience couldn’t help but snort and giggle at this typically pathetic attitude of the people who’ve been installed as Mendo’s water planners.

Back to some history.

[AVA, November 2008, Supervisors meeting report]:

“After a presentation about the new dam at Brooktrails subdivision northwest of Willits, which is expected to at least partially solve the area's perennial water shortages, Supervisor Pinches noted, ‘It's commendable of you and the Brooktrails board to develop this water project and increase the size of the dam on a fish-bearing stream. It took you three years. We talk about 10 or 20 years to do a project.” [Pinches' reference was to the County's foot-dragging on the Boy Scout Lake expansion project also designed to slake Willits' and maybe Redwood Valley's thirst. Its expanded capacity is a County project, hence Pinches' frustration with the hurdles attached to its projected expansion as compared to Brooktrails relatively fast increased capacity while leaping similar bureaucratic barriers.] Pinches continued, “That's just unacceptable. Brooktrails did it in three years on a fish stream. We have been told ten years [for the Boy Scout Lake Project, which is not on a fish-bearing stream.] But if you put attention to it you can do it.”

"File It Under Ridiculous" (November 2008)

Last we heard, the Scout Dam project — a project which had gone through several costly formal stages of development — had bogged down in negotiations with the nebulous group of Boy Scout administrators in charge of it. When Pinches got sick and retired in 2015, the project was shelved.

* * *

[AVA, December 30, 2009, Supervisors Meeting]

“SUPERVISOR JOHN PINCHES was visibly upset with CEO Tom Mitchell for not including his Scout Lake water development project on the County’s list of priority funding targets, which did include emergency generators at the Ukiah Airport. ‘Is that [the generators] on the same parity as getting a viable water source for the people of Mendacina County?” asked an indignant Pinches. ‘My message or the message of this board is not getting through! What is more important to this county? What are we going to do when we run out of water? What are we going to do if we don't get significant rain this year? All this paperwork hasn't brought us nuthin'. And when it comes to the priorities, water issues are “Integrated Water Resource Management Planning and so forth.” We've had that goin' on 20 years now and it hasn't brought us a gallon of water! Where's our Water Agency? Every week we talk about extending our drought. We're not doing nuthin' about it!’

MITCHELL didn’t help matters by blandly informing Pinches that the Scout Lake Project wasn’t far enough along to seek funding for. “I don't have a transmission system,” said Mitchell. “I don't have any of the capital infrastructure needs. We are not at the point yet where I can ask for funding.”

’WHAT COMES FIRST, the chicken or the egg?” replied Pinches. “We gotta have some money to even move the project along. We don't have the project. Now you're saying we gotta have the project totally designed before we can move forward. With that process we're never gonna get anywhere! It's kinda like a cub bear trying to get out of a trash can. We're not gripping anything. We’re not takin' hold. We gotta move this forward. Thousands of people are dependent on this. Nobody is stopping this except us! Scout Lake is damned important to Mendacina County. I'm getting a little bit impatient and starting the first of the year I'm going to get a whole lot more impatient. If you want me to fill this board room with hundreds of people demanding some action, I can do that! I don't think that's necessary. But when I see a list that includes airport generators as priorities and has nothing about water development it drives me nuts!’

THE OTHER Supes got Pinches to calm down a bit, and finally Mitchell grudgingly agreed to put Scout Lake on the funding list, sort of. Whether it's wholly there or not remains unclear.

* * *

Since it’s now 2021 and we have a new Board since the last time the subject arose, Mendo might want to explore John Pinches’ proposal to revisit the legalities and arrangements associated with “Decision 1610” which essentially ratified Sonoma County’s ownership of most of inland Mendo’s water.

Pinches’s argument back then was essentially that since most of the water in Lake Sonoma actually falls to earth in Mendocino County in the Dry Creek Drainage, it could be used as legal leverage in re-negotiating the water and money arrangements no in place which so favor Sonoma County. But, as the above-linked stories show, back in 2013 nobody but Pinches was interested in even looking into the options.

Toward the end of the roadshow, Supervisor McGrape, er McGourty, pointed out that Anderson Valley has the capacity for twice the current vineyard acreage, although they might find it hard to get enough water for that much more vineyard here. A couple of attendees asked if there could be a limit on vineyards, especially given the long-term drought conditions the Valley faces. McGourty put on his politician hat to answer that that was theoretically possible since they’re doing something like that with pot. But then McGourty reverted to the party line, reminding the questioner that the County depends heavily on the money from vineyards an associated economic activity for its operating revenue.

Although McGourty, like his fellow newcomers to the party, has no idea what to do about the water problem, he did concede at the end of the meeting that “We [meaning mainly grape growers in Mendocino County] can’t count on having all the water we want anymore.”

One Comment

  1. Rye N Flint July 12, 2021

    About 1 hour and 20 minutes into the meeting McGourty and Metz realize that they don’t actually know who is in charge of or how to regulate Water well data and water haulers. Maybe they should try applying for a water well themselves, to better understand how the process actually works, and ask EH land use dept what kind of data is actually collected. And then hire someone like Metz instead of actually hiring land use employees to do actual work… Maybe we can spitball some ideas around for another 6 months to a year.

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