UKIAH 3/30/2017 — The Ukiah City Council met Wednesday at the Ukiah City Conference Center for a special workshop on water supply planning. Sean White, the city’s director of water and sewer, told the council and a dozen or so members of the public that Ukiah’s water supply, from a variety of sources, is about seven times the demand. Though the discussion was ostensibly about water, it returned several times to that perennial Ukiah Valley issue: the pace of development and population growth. The council made no decisions during open session.
The workshop was prompted by White’s recommendation, made at the Council’s January 4 meeting, that the city give up a contract with Russian River Flood Control (RRFC) to buy 800 acre feet of water per year, at an annual cost of $37,600. The Redwood Valley water district has a right to surplus water, but farmers in the area have been hard hit during drought years. At the January 4 meeting, White suggested that giving up the RRFC contract could “help other municipalities that don’t have such a good water right situation.”
On Wednesday, White explained that Ukiah has water from a variety of other sources, including surface water, groundwater, and, potentially, recycled water. California water law is notoriously byzantine, and Ukiah’s water laws are no exception. The city has riparian water rights, a pre-1914 water right, and a 1954 appropriative right to surface water. Estimates of the size of the Ukiah Valley aquifer range as high as 120,000 acre-feet. The city has one well and a Ranney collector to divert surface water, and four wells that tap into groundwater, which is not currently managed, though the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act may change that in the future. White added up all of this, plus the 800 acre feet of contract water and 1,400 acre feet he expects in the future from the recycled water facility, to a supply of 22,702 acre feet per year. He told the council that the city’s demand has been 3,178 acre feet per year since 2006.
Questions about water use quickly led to concerns about growth, and why the city was planning to spend $32 million on a recycled water facility, if there is already so much excess water.
Former Ukiah City Council member Phil Baldwin opined that, “The impact on the Russian River would be significant” if all the customers of the RRFC used all the water they had a right to.
He was also concerned about the valley’s population increasing dramatically, if all the water were put to use.
Bill Koehler, the general manager of the Redwood Valley and Millview water districts, said he does not believe that “Somehow releasing 800 acre feet will lead to this imaginary explosive growth.” Rather, he declared, if Redwood Valley had access to the contract, he thinks it would “lead to a little more comfort for ag.” Council member Kevin Doble concurred, saying he could foresee a scenario in which a formerly agricultural piece of property, precisely because it is deprived of sufficient water, might be converted to residential development, thus leading to more growth, not less.
Tamara Alaniz, the general manager of RRFC, brought up the ever-present issue of the shortage of housing, saying that many entities county-wide, including the county itself, “Can’t fill positions because we have no place to live.”
Asked about the aversion to growth in a tight rental market, Ukiah City Manager Sage Sangiacomo said that growth was best managed by zoning and general planning. “To utilize utilities to restrict or spur growth is a poor mechanism to have growth decided in a community,” he said. “In fact, it leads to piecemeal, scattered development.”
Linda Bailey, a member of the public, asked White about the recycled water facility, which is scheduled to begin phases one through three next year. “What’s the rationale for spending this money when you have plenty of water rights? And plenty of adequate water sources already at your disposal?”
White replied that, “You wouldn’t want to play chess with just a giant pile of rooks,” and that recycled water is “incredibly drought resistant,” since the seniority of a municipality’s pre-1914 water right is not relevant to this particular source. He added that, “One of our biggest expenses right now is disposing of” treated wastewater, by discharging a portion of it into the river. He predicted that the costs would continue to increase, with tightening state environmental restrictions on compounds commonly found in wastewater. Ukiah has $10 million from California’s Prop 1 for the recycled water facility, and a 1% state loan for $25 million, with the city’s water enterprise fund as collateral. White acknowledged that using this water can be “a huge ideological sell,” which is why he plans to offer it to farmers for free. “Once we develop the system, we can afford to sell it,” he said. He also suggested the possibility of conjunctive use, or creating a basin filled with treated wastewater that could recharge groundwater during times when the river is dry. There is already a basin at Riverside Park in Ukiah, which he presented as ideal for the purpose.
While the council made no decisions at the workshop, council members Doug Crane and Doble indicated they were willing to consider giving up the city’s contract with RRFC. “Some would say that keeping the 800 acre feet…is in a way being a dog in the manger,” Crane remarked.
Sangiacomo added that he worries the city could become “poor actors,” with more water than it needs, while neighbors don’t have enough. He warned that “The state steps in, when you have bad actors that can’t get along within their own area,” and brought up the specter of “regulatory burdens that we don’t know about yet.”
While some members of the audience favored hanging on to as much water as possible, to be best prepared for changing climate conditions, Doble’s final remarks indicated that he felt otherwise. “I just have a sour feeling about the mentality that because we’re the city, we can spend $40,000 on this water just so no one else can have it,” he said. “We benefit every single day from a tremendous amount of people who I don’t represent…I just think that building this picket fence around the city is a bad policy.”
Sarah Reith [email protected]