Water, Water everywhere
And not a drop to drink. Samual Taylor Coleridge
Water, Water everywhere The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
And how the boards did shrink. 1798
Coleridge’s poem is a reminder that human beings and all of creation must have water in order to exist and survive. As the population of the world has increased it has become critical that water is saved and stored. California has a population just under 43 million. Much of the water used by Californians comes from the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Water that rushes out to the Pacific Ocean is not doing anything for California.
California’s interconnected water system serves the population and irrigates over 5,680,000 acres of farmland. As the world’s largest, most productive and potentially most controversial water system, it manages over 40 million acre-feet of water per year. Use of available water averages 50% environmental, 40% agricultural and 10% urban. This percentage varies considerably by region and between wet and dry years, but water is almost always limited in California’s dry season. A constant debate is whether California should increase the redistribution of water to its large agricultural and urban sectors or increase conservation and preserve the natural ecosystems of the water sources.
For the last 115 years, the population and economy of Sonoma County has grown with a dependency on Eel River water, imported to the Russian River. Relying on the assumption that those water imports will be available, Russian River communities have grown to serve 71,000 people, irrigate 23,000 agricultural acres and support 2400 water rights. Until now, that imported water has been essentially free. Those days are quickly coming to an end. That water is no longer going to be free and may be severely limited because of the evolution of PG&E’s Potter Valley Project (the “PVP”).
PG&E uses the water from the PVP dam system to run a generator. Downstream from that, the water is classified as “abandoned” and has been used for irrigating Potter Valley and filling Lake Mendocino. Once the water is stored in Lake Mendocino, Sonoma Water takes ownership of it, and uses it to keep the Russian River flowing year-round (longtime Sonoma residents will remember when it used to run dry in the summer).
Potter Valley’s dam system has been owned and operated by PG&E, but it is old, needs rework, and no longer makes economic sense. Our political “leaders” could have the state take over the dam system and fix it…but that’s not what they are doing. Instead, they’ve actively advocated removing the Lake Pillsbury reservoir and its associated dams.
There is misinformation and extensive politicking about the dams. Several Indian tribes are against them. Commercial fishermen believe that the dam is the main reason that there are no fish in the Eel. State agencies do not want to get involved in legal actions dealing with water rights.
Around 1900, before the dams were built, life along the rivers was very different. The upper Eel was subject to severe floods and supported about 2,000 people. The upper Russian River was also subject to severe floods, at times was very shallow and supported about 13,000 people.
How do Water Rights Work?
Federal and state regulations mandate several aspects of water management and they must be complied with. Tribes have unique water rights at the federal and state level. A user must hold a state water right administered by the State Water Resources Control Board in order to take water from a river or its underflow. Some types of state water rights have seniority over other state water rights. Water Rights law is highly specific and due to the history of Russian River development, water rights are fairly complicated here.
There are three different “types” of water in the Russian River and three different categories of water rights. Almost nobody has legal access to all three types of Russian River water and during the summer months many water rights holders have no legal access to it – even in years when the winter rainfall has been plentiful. This is very poorly understood and will come as a very unpleasant surprise once push comes to shove and the laws are enforced. Riparian water rights (held by owners whose properties border the river) will be particularly impacted.
Of course, all this gets worse in a drought. In 2021 and 2022, essentially all water right holders on the Russian River were ordered to stop pumping. And that was with the PVP in operation. If the PVP stops operating even for a year (a distinct possibility at this point), most Potter Valley farmers will not have irrigation water and Lake Mendocino will run low. Estimates of how often lack of water imports will cause Russian water rights holders to experience water shortage vary, but it’s somewhere between 4 and 8 out of every 10 years. Without PVP water imports, Lake Mendocino is likely to run dry after two consecutive drought years. All this leads to water rationing (the legal term is “curtailments”, ordered under water emergency laws).
What can be done to avoid (or at least minimize) all this?
Yes, all of this is going to cost money—both for capital and operations. But our local economy must have water to function properly and provide for our citizens. We need to invest what is required to keep our local economy going: water! Without water there is no viable economy.