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Fire, Water & Broken Pot Rules

There’s hardly a person in Mendocino County who is not aware of the fact that marijuana cultivation is totally out of control.

There are four people however, Supervisors Gjerde, Williams, McGourty, and Mulheren who think that their proposed ordinance that allows unprecedented pot expansion is a fine idea.

Of course, their proposal is being challenged by a referendum that seeks to repeal the entire ordinance.

This county is coming apart at the seams because of the unchecked pot proliferation occurring during declared drought emergencies, town water supplies and private wells going dry, and rampant water thefts and illegal diversions.

On top of these calamities is the reality of what appears to be another record-setting year of catastrophic wildfires.

I want to talk about fire and water and people who aren’t getting the message regarding how those two things are related to the difficulties of operating a municipal water utility during these times and circumstances. 

Here’s a quick look at recent events occurring with the Laytonville County Water District.

On my KPFN program last Saturday, Lauren Kaplan who also does a show on the Puffin, called station manager Kevin Marsh shortly before 2 p.m. to report a large column of smoke near the bottom of Bell Springs Road at Highway 101.

Kevin came into the studio with the information and on air I called Laytonville Fire Department Chief Sue Carberry and asked if she was aware of the situation. She said she wasn’t but would get right on it.

Turns out the fire broke out off Bell Springs Road near Foster Creek Road east of Leggett.

The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office eventually issued evacuation orders that forced some residents to flee the area.

Firefighters and air support from multiple agencies fought the fire and about 5:30 p.m. the wildfire’s forward progress halted.

Cal Fire Mendocino reported that the fire burned 50 acres all together. The cause is unknown but under investigation.

By 9:25 p.m., all evacuation warnings and orders had been rescinded and residents were allowed to start returning home.

As I write this, on Tuesday night (August 17), fire personnel are still mopping up the area, and using water from our District to make sure the fire stays out.

We are fortunate in the Long Valley area to have an aquifer that recharges itself even in times of drought. It’s a natural resource that all of us who work for the Water District know must be protected, safeguarded and watched over ever so carefully. We don’t take our responsibilities lightly.

It’s one of the reasons that the greater Laytonville area that relies on our water, has never been forced to take mandatory water cuts during recent periods of drought.

We have a proven reliable source of water that is properly managed by District employees. All of us who work for the District live here in Laytonville and we’re not about to shirk our responsibilities and not do our jobs when it comes to protecting this vital resource.

But we need help in doing our jobs from District customers.

For over a month now we have broadcast on the radio, in the newspaper, on social media, with leaflets, and sign boards how important it is for everybody to comply with a rule and regulation that has been in effect since 2016.

That rule forbids watering outdoors from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m, seven days a week. Customers may water outdoors all they want from 5:01 p.m. to 10:59 a.m.

There are penalties and fines for people who break the rule. But too many people are ignoring the regulation even though there’s a tremendous loss of water during the heat of the day hours of 11 to 5.

This must stop because we are not maintaining safe firefighting levels in our storage tanks.

We are in the peak of wildfire season. On the same day the Bell Springs fire broke out there were two other fires in or near town, that were quickly knocked down. But if any one of those fires had gotten away from firefighters, large amounts of water would very likely have been needed to successfully combat them. If storage tanks are depleted it becomes almost impossible to fight fires.

The cause of this problem is no secret. Two-thirds of the population of Laytonville live west of Ten Mile Creek, we call this area the “West Zone.” There are record volumes of water being pumped to the West Zone mostly because there’s record numbers of pot plants under cultivation. Water consumption has increased by 50% this summer in the West Zone. Our booster pumps run almost non-stop during the hours of 11 to 5.

Every drop of water that is pulled from our wells and treated at the plant is metered. Water used by people who live in town to the east of Ten Mile Creek remains normal. Likewise with the bulk water sales. In fact, water haulers are on schedule restrictions. Plus all the water they use is metered. Again, we know exactly how much water is being used by everybody.

Cal Fire recently reported that, “The length of fire season is estimated to have increased by 75 days across the Sierra and seems to correspond with an increase in the extent of forest fires across the state. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) predicts portions of the Coast Ranges, Sierra, and Cascades in California increasing to above normal fire danger in June and July and continuing through September.”

Cal Fire reported that as of Aug 12, 959,611 acres have been blackened by 6,347 fires. Nearly 1,700 structures are gone. No lives have been lost — so far.

But bad as they are, this year’s fires have not set a record — yet.

The record was set last year, when Cal Fire reported a total of 9,917 wildfires that blackened 6,653 square miles, damaged 10,488 structures and left 33 people dead. Cal Fire pronounced the 2020 wildfire season the largest recorded in California’s modern history.

If fire on any scale happens here, we’re going to need water immediately to fight it. We have plenty of water for everybody right now. We just need water to keep our tanks full, or as close to full as possible so that firefighters can do their jobs.

So please folks, follow this very simple rule:

Seven days a week there is no outdoor watering allowed between the hours of 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

If the Water District does not see immediate improvement in compliance with this regulation, we’ll institute our Two Day Rule, which only allows outdoor watering two days per week from the hours of 5:01 pm to 10:59 a.m.

So please work with us, we don’t want to impose another regulation. We have a good thing going here, it’s in all of our interests to keep it that way.

The most important responsibility that we have as a local government water agency is to keep our customers and community safe. We believe that and we live it.

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher,, and is also the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:

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