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California Orders Water Cuts to Wine Country Growers and Ranchers

A historic lack of rainfall and dwindling reservoir levels prompted state regulators to cut nearly 1,000 property owners off from the Russian River in the heart of California's Wine Country.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) --- Water shortages have returned to drought-riddled California as state regulators on Wednesday ordered hundreds of farmers and ranchers to slash diversions from a critical wine country river.

Citing the need to preserve drinking water and prevent the Russian River from drying up this summer, drought regulators told nearly 1,000 land owners in Mendocino County there won’t be enough surface water to satisfy their needs until at least the winter.

The action by the State Water Resources Control Board is the most drastic conservation step the state has taken since last decade’s historic dry spell and the first of many more as the Golden State plunges deeper into drought.  

“Unless we immediately reduce diversions, there is a real risk of Lake Mendocino emptying by the end of this year,” warned Erik Ekdahl, deputy director for the water board’s Division of Water Rights, in a statement. “We need to implement the water rights system to protect supplies in case of another dry winter, which could transform the Russian River into a series of disconnected pools and restrict the availability of drinking water in the area.”  

Historically low flows in the Upper Russian River prompted Wednesday’s decision that will impact a total of 930 junior water rights holders in the Upper Russian River watershed. The move forces the unlucky winegrowers and farmers in the region with water rights obtained after 1949 to temporarily forgo their usually reliable take of surface water and turn to groundwater. Junior holders who continue to divert water after June 1 face fines of up to $1,000 per day, according to the water board.  

For now, owners of “senior” water rights held before 1914 can continue diversions for so-called “beneficial purposes” like farming, municipal supply and recreation.  

The hierarchy of California’s water system dates back to 1914 when it began issuing water diversion permits and thereby created the line between senior and junior holders. During particularly dry stretches, the latter gets cut off first.

In 2015 during the last drought, the water board ordered thousands of junior and senior rights holders to cut surface water diversions. The controversial move reverberated throughout the state, causing farmers and even some cities scurrying to find alternative water supplies and resulted in a string of lawsuits.

Already this spring, the water board has sent notices to thousands of rights holders, warning them to prepare for likely curtailments later in the year.

The water board says the order, which is likely to remain in effect until winter rains hopefully return, is necessary to safeguard one of the primary sources of drinking water for Sonoma County.

Located in the heart of California’s wine country approximately three hours north of San Francisco, Lake Mendocino was created in 1959 to prevent flooding and supply both hydroelectric power and drinking water. In addition, releases from Coyote Dam during dry years prevent the majestic Russian River and its salmon runs from drying up.

After a disappointing winter in which the nearby city of Ukiah received 40% of its average rainfall, the lake is approximately 41% full. As a result, local water suppliers have asked growers and cities to voluntarily cut their consumption by 20% as reservoir levels sink lower than they were during the last drought.  

Unlike other populated areas connected to the state’s main water delivery system, the region depends heavily on rainfall.   

California received precious little precipitation during its current water year, which began in October, with water managers chalking it up as the fourth driest on record dating back to 1877. Only 22.4 inches fell in the North Sierra as measured by the 8-station index. The average annual precipitation is about 50 inches. 

Now the region famous for its chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon grapes has quickly become the epicenter of California’s water woes.

Standing in a dry bed of Lake Mendocino last month, Governor Gavin Newsom declared the state’s first local drought emergencies in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Drought emergencies have now been declared in 41 of the state’s 58 counties.

“We barely got out of the drought conditions from 2016 and now we are right back in those conditions,” Newsom bemoaned. 

Still early in the dry season, the water board said more emergency curtailments are a possibility as the summer rolls on.

The water situation also worsened Wednesday for California farmers and cities that rely on federally subsidized water, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced municipal and industrial water suppliers will have their annual rations cut from 55% to 25%. The feds said hydrologic conditions continue to deteriorate and that the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Basin is at its lowest point since 1977.

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Categories / Environment, Government, Regional

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