Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Russian River: Everybody Wants Some, But…

The Russian River, as we know it today, arises in the pine-studded hills surrounding Potter Valley, with an overwhelming infusion of Eel River water helping it on its way as it tumbles down into the Lake Mendocino reservoir. The river's western fork trickles out of the fir-laden hills north of Redwood Valley, in the vicinity of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery: an outpost of the Ukranian Greek-Catholic Church.

The two forks come together at the precise location of the Mendocino Forests Products (aka Mendocino Redwood Company) mill in northern Ukiah, which draws on an annual water right of about 90 acre-feet in the course of annually producing more than 45 million board feet of lumber. As it leaves Mendocino County, the river cuts through a spectacular serpentine canyon best known as the location of Frog Woman Rock and drops into the Alexander Valley, where it is fed by water that drops from the world's second largest geothermal power plant, and from Mount St. Helena: the highest point in the Mayacamas mountain range.

Perhaps the real clincher occurs about 10 miles upstream of Guerneville, where five Sonoma County Water Agency radial wells — collectors that extract water from an aquifer with direct connection to a surface water source, in this case the Russian River — receive water filtered through 60 to 90 feet of naturally deposited sand and gravel. The Water Agency then pumps the water into a lengthy aqueduct system, which supplies ever growing Sonoma County to the south, including two cities that are in altogether different drainage basins: Petaluma and Sonoma.

The water doesn't stop there. Some of these liquid resources reach northern Marin County — particularly Novato, which receives 75% of its water from the Russian – and some ends up all the way in southern Marin County. Among those that receive the Sonoma County Water Agency's deliveries are the working-class Bay Area suburb of Marin City, teenage home of legendary hip-hop martyr Tupac Shakur, and Sausalito, the upper-crust town on the North Bay's fringes that practically bumps right up against the Golden Gate Bridge.

From the perspective of many contemporary Mendocino County leaders, the original sin that created this far-flung arrangement, and put Sonoma County in the position to profit from all these water sales, was the late-1950s deal that financed Coyote Valley Dam and Lake Mendocino. In the mid-20th century, Sonoma County was determined to acquire rights to the upper Russian River's water, and also to provide flood protection on behalf of the bustling river-centric recreation and hospitality industries on the lower river reaches in Guerneville and Monte Rio.

So, Mendocino County's wealthier neighbor to the south bankrolled far more of the dam and reservoir construction.  As a result, the Sonoma County Water Agency received a contract amounting to a little over 88% of Lake Mendocino's supply. Meanwhile, an entity with a stupefyingly length title — the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District (henceforth, the “Improvement District”) – got 11.7%, which equates to 8,000 acre feet, and which constitutes Mendo's paltry share of the deal.

In recent years, Mendocino County's best and brightest political leaders and water managers have been casting about for a way to expand their limited supply. Part of the push for a bigger supply has to do with concerns regarding water security. The situation is epitomized by Redwood Valley.  Even though one of the Russian River's two major forks originates in hills north of the rural Ukiah suburb, Redwood Valley stands last in line for the river's water.

In the March 19th AVA, I detailed one of the three main avenues the Improvement District and other inland Mendocino County movers-and-shakers are pursuing for the new supply. Thanks to funding from the Proposition 84 water bond, approved by California voters in 2006, each of Ukiah Valley's disparate water districts — Redwood Valley, the City of Ukiah, Millview County Water District, Calpella County Water District, and Willow Water District — are becoming connected via a series of pipes, known as intertie pipes, that allow them to deliver groundwater to one another while water is under ration.

An intertie allowed delivery of Millview water sources to Redwood Valley in the past 15 months. It was constructed in mid-2014 with $399,000 in Proposition 84 funds. The new pipes extend from the 5200 block of North State Street, the location of a Calpella County Water District pumping station, to the 7000 block of East Road north of Highway 20, as well as a new pumping station on the 6700 block of Central Avenue west of Highway 101 near Uva Drive. Millview and Calpella had an pre-existing intertie connecting their districts.

Meanwhile, interties connecting Millview, Calpella, and Redwood Valley to the City of Ukiah and Willow County Water District, which serves about 3,700 people south of the Ukiah city limits, have also received funding. According to Keith Wallace, an engineer at the California Department of Water Resources, the remaining interties and associated water delivery systems will likely go out to bid next month.

In an interview, Redwood Valley County Water District General Manager Bill Koehler described the larger purpose of the interties: consolidation of Ukiah Valley's balkanized system of water districts. “It's part of our goal to consolidate the four county water districts into a single county water district,” he said. “We all play under exactly the same rulebook, so it only makes sense for us to start the process by joining the four districts together.”

Another possibility involves an application for 6,000 acre-feet of additional Lake Mendocino water, which the Improvement District submitted in 2007, based on a claim that Sonoma County failed to put this water to beneficial use which is slowly working its way through the Water Board's review process. One of the hurdles that stands in the way of that application is the Improvement District’s ongoing effort to receive a new water rights license from the State Water Resources Control Board on terms acceptable to the State.

Darren Tran, a staff person in the state Division of Water Rights, explained in an interview that entities typically seek water licenses at the end of a permitting period. “The Division of Water Rights (Division) normally conducts a licensing inspection after the permit development period has ended. The District’s development period for its permit with the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control District ended in 2007 and they requested to go to licensing in 2008.”

The Improvement District is also seeking a license as part of its application for 6,000 acre feet of water, former long-time Improvement District board member Lee Howard says. So, the license for the existing 8,000 acre feet is also a crucial step if the long-shot bid for the extra 6,000 can go forward.

On February 27th, 2006 , the Improvement District received a draft of that license from from Mr. Tran this past February 27th. “Finally!” Improvement District Board Member and winegrape grower Alfred White wrote in an e-mail to colleagues (obtained from an individual who acquired them under the California Public Records Act). “We've waited long enough for this, now we need to spend all the time we need to be sure it is what we want to live with.”

However, the District's members don't want to live with parts of the proposal after all, as the Improvement District's former general manager, Sean White, made clear in an e-mail to Tran last month. White places the blame for the most objectionable condition, which would allow the Water Board to revoke some of the Improvement District's water rights at a later date, including in the event of a legal process called an adjudication, squarely on the Sonoma County Water Agency.

“The way it is written it essentially leaves the door open to yank the license at any time,” former Improvement District general manager Sean White, who now runs the City of Ukiah's water and sewer division, fumed in an e-mail to Tran. “I don't expect the SCWA or Allan Lilly [SCWA's attorney] will ever be satisfied as blocking the RRFC's license is part of their ongoing strategy.”

Since the Improvement District objects to the condition that they fear would allow Sonoma County yet to be able to pry away the right to some of their existing supply, it is uncertain when they will come to terms with the Water Board.  Alfred White wrote back to White: "Obviously this is going to be another long slog."  The inability to reach a license agreement with the Water Board would scuttle any chance of acquiring the extra 6,000 acre-feet, which former Improvement District member Howard, in his conversation with me, called "a pipe dream" in the best of circumstances given that 6,000 acre-feet of unappropriated water simply does not exist anywhere in the Russian River watershed.

Another, related effort involves a study in the Russian River watershed to examine ways to ensure flood safety while increasing the amount of water Lake Mendocino can legally hold during the winter and early-spring. Under existing rules, the Army Corps of Engineers releases tens of thousands of acre feet of water from the reservoir in many years to preserve its flood control capacity. Among those who pushed to re-examine this practice was Sean White, who helped lobby Congressman Jared Huffman to secure funding for a method called "forecast informed reservoir operations," or FIRO, which would use technological advances to forecast weather and watershed conditions more accurately, in order to anticipate runoff into storage. That may lead to a net increase in Lake Mendocino storage.

The holy grail for all inland Mendocino County water managers would be a 36-foot increase in the height of Coyote Valley dam, an idea many of them are avidly pursuing, despite the project's forbidding pricetag of $300 million. The Mendocino County Agriculture Department, the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, the Mendocino County Winegrape Commission, and the Mendocino County Farm Bureau are collectively spending $19,000 on a study by Sonoma State University professor Robert Eyler regarding “the economic impacts of the agricultural industry related to water use from Lake Mendocino.”

According to a January 2016 letter from Mendocino County Farm Bureau President Frost Pauli to the Improvement District Board of Directors, “The driver behind this idea was to be able to use the report to provide this important information to entities such as the US Army Corps of Engineers, elected officials and others on the value of agricultural commodities and related multipliers that are directly dependent on water availability in Lake Mendocino.”

Eyler has conducted at least one study on the wine industry's behalf before. In 2011, he published a report on how modest State Water Board frost protection regulations would cause economic losses to the Sonoma and Mendocino county wine industries of "up to $2 billion" per year. The study was funded by New York investment tycoon John Dyson, owner of a SoCo winery, and best known perhaps as the New York City Chamber of Commerce executive who created the "I [Heart] New York" bumper stickers.

Meanwhile, other ideas are in circulation. Former supervisor John Pinches submitted several alternate ideas for increasing water storage in his tenure as supervisor. And Ukiah is also working on a plan to pipe treated wastewater to Ukiah Valley's vineyards.

Some onlookers are concerned that the increased supply will prefigure further development, possibly in a suburban sprawl type of format, on Ukiah's northern and southern fringes. Perhaps most vocal among them has been former Ukiah City Councilmember Phil Baldwin, who ran for a seat on the Improvement District Board of Directors last year. In response, people backing the two wine industry candidates running for Improvement District seats, Al White and Tyler Rodrigue, took the unusual step of sending out a glossy mailer that discretely targeted Baldwin's bid.

The mailer featured a stark message. “Will our future be more of this...[picture of a Lake Mendocino boat ramp leading to dust and mud] … or more of this? [picture of Lake Mendocino brimming with water]. Water Security is Key to the Long Term Health of the Ukiah Valley. Effective leadership and governance by the Russian River Flood Control District Board of Trustees will advance that goal. Vote for Tyler Rodrigue and Alfred White to ensure that we meet the challenges ahead.”


Rodrigue and White won the election by a large margin, although the fact that the election occurred in an off-year for federal and state elections may have hurt Baldwin's chances.

(In the next installment of this series, I will look at the proposed Coyote Valley dam raise in more detail.)


  1. David Lilker April 28, 2016

    Well done. I will add one thing. My friend Mr. Baldwin essentially had a campaign budget of zero. Rodrigue and White did not merely outspend Phil; it was overkill at a level rarely seen in local politics. I’d be interested to know just how many thousands of dollars they received from Ukiah and Redwood Valley wineries.

  2. Rosalind Peterson April 30, 2016

    The Russian River Flood Control District now has two vacancies on its Board of Directors with the Resignations Trustee Judy Hatch (April 11, 2016), and Trustee Richard Shoemaker (April 15, 2016).

    If you wish to be considered for an appointment to the Russian River Board of Trustees you must live within this district and apply to the District prior to May 11, 2016.

    Protecting our water rights and Lake Mendocino is of primary importance to the residents of the Ukiah Valley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *