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When It Rains, It Really Pours

Let me throw some numbers at you.

Exactly a week ago last Sunday, Laytonville’s precipitation for the rain year starting July 1 was 2.33 inches. By the end of the day, 7.95 inches of rain poured from the sky onto our valley floor.

Up in the mountains, nearby residents living on Spyrock and Bell Springs Roads, reported rain totals ranging from 10 inches to 15 inches last Sunday.

We’re told last week’s monster deluge was a history-setting event for Northern California. My son, who lives in Sacramento, told me their rainfall set an all-time record.

Here in Laytonville, the historical average precipitation for the entire month of October is 3.84 inches. The historical average rainfall from July 1 to Oct. 31 is 6.04 inches. Last week’s inundation dumped 13.20 inches, pushing our total season rainfall to 15.53 inches, nearly triple the historical average.

The only reason we didn’t have massive flooding last Sunday was due to several intervals where the downpour ceased for an hour or so, allowing the water to flow into creeks and partially permeate what was drought-hardened soil.

Up until last Sunday, most folks were still fretting about the drought and praying for rain. Now a lot of them are not quite so worried about the immediate future bringing back mandatory water cuts of the 2012-17 statewide drought era.

Prior to this super-soaking, people thought we might be headed into another drought, even a more extreme drought than that of a few years ago.

The thinking now is similar to what folks were thinking in 2014, right in the middle of a scary Great Drought, one of the state’s driest periods in recorded history. The voters in 2014 approved Proposition 1, a $7.5-billion water bond proposal. The vote was a slam-dunk 67 percent to 33 percent margin of victory.

Most voters enthusiastically supported Prop 1 because the politicians set aside $2.7 billion of the $7.5 billion bond for additional water storage in new reservoirs and projects to replenish groundwater basins and aquifers depleted by over-pumping during the drought.

It seemed everybody had learned a lesson the hard way: We need to buy water insurance policies to safeguard against the perils of the next Big Drought.

Well guess what?

How many storage reservoirs have been built from Prop 1 funding?

At this time the answer would be none of the more than half-dozen water storage projects scheduled to receive Prop 1 money have been built.

When was the last water reservoir built in California?

New Melons Dam, north of Sonora, was the last water storage project built in California. It was completed in 1980.

What was California’s population in 1980?

It was 24.29 million.

And the population in 2021 is 39.65 million, an increase of 15.36 million.

So we have the same water storage infrastructure (actually probably less) that we had 41 years ago, but almost twice as many people living here now. Think those additional 15.36 million people use much water?

The largest project by far is the Sites Reservoir in Northern California, which would be the state’s first new reservoir of significant size since the New Melons Dam. There’s been lots of talk about building the Sites Reservoir since the 1950s. But its cost, plus the usual Byzantine politics surrounding all water issues in California, stopped it from happening.

But now, thanks to this major major drought, the Sites project is back on the front burner. It’s tentatively ok’d to get $836 million in Prop 1 funding to help pay the overall $3.9 billion price tag. The feds have recently committed $80 million to the reservoir, the largest appropriation of any water storage scheduled to receive funding next year. And the project will be in line to receive some of the $1.15 billion included in the Biden infrastructure bill.

“The modern strategy is to invest more in below ground storage and off stream reservoirs,” Tim Wehling, engineer with the California Department of Water Resources, said. “One of the most exciting off-stream dam projects on the horizon is Sites Reservoir.”

According to Wehling, the strategy of the proposed Sites Reservoir just west of Maxwell in Colusa County would be in wet years, siphon off excess water from the swollen Sacramento River and store it for use in dry years. Since it’s an off-stream reservoir, it wouldn’t block fish navigation like the dams of the 1950s.

There’s also the proposed Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir, just west of Patterson off of Interstate 5. If approved, construction would begin in 2022 and take six years to complete. It would also store water for farmers to be used during dry years.

But, Wehling says adding reservoirs and dams isn’t enough.

“We need to use water more efficiently, choose landscapes better suited for our local climates, and do our parts to reverse climate change,” Wehling said.

Whiskey’s For What?

Received quite a few comments on last week’s column about using the winter high flows of streams and rivers for water storage and recharging depleted aquifers.

George Hollister, President of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau, said, “Jim Shields makes a good point regarding California’s inability to build new reservoirs, even though it is obvious we need them. The problem isn’t a lack of money, but ideology. Jared Huffman’s desire to remove Scott Dam is a good example of this California mindset, even though Huffman’s home county is now having to get water from Alameda County over the Richmond Bridge. Ideology, faith, and religion are more powerful than money. What doesn’t seem to make sense, in reality, doesn’t make sense.”

Bill Harper pointed out, “The problem is too many people. No amount of dam building, conservation or education can keep up. Even though Shields mentions it in his article he doesn’t make the connection.”

Both gentlemen raise convincing arguments, although Mr. Harper must have overlooked my observation on “too many people” and not enough water to meet their needs currently.

I wrote, “So we have the same water storage infrastructure (actually probably less) that we had 41 years ago, but almost twice as many people living here now. Think those additional 15.36 million people use much water?”

You see, what happens locally is truly part of a much larger picture. When it rains here in Mendocino County and other parts of NorCal, we’re not the only ones who depend on it.

To a large degree, how that water is used — or not used as in mandatory conservation regulations — is really not decided by us. Those decisions are made by others, in Sacramento, and even further away in Washington D.C.

Decisions to transfer “our water” south to where two-thirds of the state’s population live and work are not made here. The quantity and end-use of the water, once its transferred, is out of our hands. Just one example of what I’m talking about:

Southern California’s reservoirs, especially during periods of below average precipitation, operate on withdrawals outpacing inflows, notwithstanding the fact that the population is not shrinking, and commercial and residential development continues seemingly unchecked. Does anyone know whether any elected official or city planner down there ever asks a simple question, such as “Do we have a sustainable source of water to support our growth?”

The answer is no and yes.

No, they don’t have a sustainable source of water in Southern California.

Yes, they have a sustainable source of water as long as Northern California water supplies remain sufficient for export to the south. Just don’t think about the day when that abundant supply of water is not there.

Now you understand the politics of California water policy.

Another person who understood California water politics was Mark Twain, who wrote about his experiences during Gold Rush times.

As the great, great writer and humorist succinctly put it, “In California, whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting.”

In more recent times, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) has also weighed in on California water politics, although with no where near the wit and conciseness of Twain.

I’ve summarized three key PPIC recommendations on ways to start solving California’s two-century old water dilemma:

• Managing surface and groundwater storage in a more integrated way—by capturing some water released from reservoirs to store in aquifers—can help California reach groundwater sustainability, increase drought reserves, provide environmental benefits, and enable the state’s water system to adapt to earlier snowmelt by freeing up storage capacity for flood operations. Where feasible, local water managers and state and federal reservoir operators should take steps to integrate aquifer storage into reservoir operations. Proposition 1 funding should prioritize projects that integrate reservoir and aquifer water management and storage.

• Although efforts to increase aquifer and groundwater recharge have intensified since the 2012-17 Drought, there are still many barriers to taking full advantage of this important strategy. Obstacles include permitting challenges, infrastructure constraints, and a lack of incentive programs to encourage farmers to recharge shared aquifers. While the state has begun to look into barriers to recharge, a plan of action to resolve these issues is a high priority. Recharging basins with recycled water and urban storm water runoff is an especially valuable strategy in places where this water would otherwise flow into the ocean or cause flooding, and these efforts should be ramped up where feasible.

• As discussed in last week’s column, California’s dams are showing signs of age. Half are more than 50 years old, and all were designed for the climate of the past. Some improvements can be funded under Proposition 1, a 2014 voter-approved $7.5-billion water bond, but much more needs to be done. For the longer term, California will need to modernize dams where needed and rethink how to operate dams and other flood infrastructure in response to a changing climate.

These should all be priorities in the development of workable public policies for a natural resource that we can’t live without. Which is the most important priority of all.

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

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