Note: Lana Cohen is a Report For America fellow covering the environment & natural resources for TMV & KZYX. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Lana’s work here or email [email protected]. Contact Cohen at LCohen@mendovoice.com. TMV maintains editorial control.
MENDOCINO Co., 10/7/2020 — Poppy Lozzoff, lead park ranger at Lake Mendocino, admits the water level at the lake looks terrifyingly low. “As a visitor, it is a dramatic sight to see so much exposed ground,” she wrote in an email. Indeed, people across the region have noted — and worried — about the amount of water left in this essential reservoir as California continues into a record dry fall and winter.
Lake Mendocino currently sits at 712 ft (the lake’s height is referenced from sea level). That’s very low. But despite years of dry conditions and the fact that California’s 2019–2020 water year was the third driest in the Upper Russian River watershed in recorded history, it’s not the lowest the lake has ever been. That’s thanks to a new set of satellite technologies and water management techniques dubbed FIRO, or Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (pronounced FEE-roh). FIRO has tangibly improved water management in inland Mendocino. Without it, the lake would be dozens of feet lower and there may have been a water shortage this year.
FIRO is a complex management system that incorporates modern satellite data, and forecasting technology to decide exactly how much water to release from Lake Mendo at any given time. The lake is the location of the first ever FIRO trial. For over six years, government agencies and academic have been testing FIRO out at Lake Mendocino. They’re trying to find out, in light of years of droughts and floods, if the new management tool will be feasible to use across the West to more efficiently manage water.
Lake Mendocino is a man-made reservoir that was created when the Coyote Valley Dam was finished in 1958. Because the lake is artificial, water managers control how much water is released or stored and when.
Before the arrival of FIRO, the lake management was based on a 1950s manual, which had last been updated in the 1980s. FIRO’s forecasting tools, considerably more advanced, allow water managers to better dial in exactly how much water to keep in the lake at any given time.
Without FIRO, the lake would have sunk to its lowest elevation of all time this year, and have 18% less water than it does now, according to Lozzoff and other officials familiar with the project. Army Corps Engineer Nick Malasavage, who has been with the project since its inception, said that if not for the use of FIRO, there likely would have been a water shortage and therefore limits placed on businesses and people who rely on Lake Mendocino water. However, given this buffer that FIRO has allowed, water shortages are not currently in the forecast for the Russian River region.
Even with FIRO and the technology it brings to the table, the Russian River water system, which includes the lake, is being stretched thin by climate change and subsequent drought. This year, the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages the lake, had to reduce flows going into the Russian in order to keep sufficient water storage in the reservoir.
During water year 2019 to 2020, which came to a close in California on September 30, the region around the lake received 34.8% of normal precipitation, compared to historical averages from the last 127 years. That number comes from measurements at the Ukiah rain gage.
As climate change continues to bring more extreme weather conditions — fewer, more intense storms during the rainy season and hotter, longer dry spells during the summer months, data and forecast based water management will become increasingly important. But it’s not a silver bullet to providing reliable water in the west. FIRO is complicated, and each reservoir is impacted by a variety of factors including climate and users. Applying FIRO principles to other bodies of water around the west and the country will not be an easy feat.
Why does water management at Lake Mendocino need to change?
Broadly, there’s just less water to go around than there used to be. As well, when water does arrive, it comes in large, intermittent storms, rather than steady streams. According to climate scientists, this pattern will become even more drastic in the future.
With less water arriving more sporadically, water budgeting is crucial to making sure water is available at all times and there is no concern over running out. It’s similar to budgeting money. If one has a steady, predictable cash flow, maybe one that arrives on a bi-monthly basis, budgeting isn’t so important. But with less money, that comes sporadically, budgeting becomes necessary to ensure that the well doesn’t run dry.
So basically, FIRO is an advanced water budgeting system. It incorporates information from satellites, lots of data, and models, as well as expertise from engineers and water managers. Before the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages Lake Mendocino, started implementing FIRO, they were using a water control manual from 1958. So FIRO is a big step into the future.
“These water control manuals, not just at Lake Mendocino but at many other reservoirs, were developed before we had computers, before we had satellites, radars, models, before we had all this other data,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer at Sonoma Water, which manages water in the region. “Now we have a lot more data, we have a lot more tools, we have a lot more scientific understanding of forecasting and hydrology and all that stuff.”
FIRO is being tested at four locations. Three in California, including Lake Mendo, and one in Washington. But the Lake Mendocino project was the original.
A brief history of FIRO
The pilot project was started in 2014 in response to a situation in 2013, when, during a year of torrential rains followed by drought, it became clear that the old method of water management wasn’t providing a reliable water supply anymore.
The old water management method, which came from a water control manual the US Army Corps created in 1958 outlined a practice that worked broadly like this: when the water was at a given level, the Army Corps should release water to reduce flood risk, and when the water was at a different level, they would hold water to avoid shortages. All of this no matter what the short or long term weather forecast.
This strict and dated system resulted in avoidable water shortages in the 2014 calendar year. Early on in the 2013 year, there was a huge storm that greatly increased water levels — enough so that the Army Corps, following the manuals directions, had to release water. Importantly, they had to follow manual instructions according to federal rules. But as it turned out, that big rain was the last of its kind for the season. There wasn’t enough rain to recharge the lake so that it could serve all stakeholders. So as the season went on, the lake kept losing water to its users, the downstream Russian River, and evaporation. Ultimately, this resulted in the 2014 water shortage, where limits were put on how much water people could use based on what they needed it for and how long they had been in the area.
Realizing that this could have been avoided if they had kept more water from that big rain, the Army Corps, along with multiple other agencies, started looking into using more data and forecasting to manage the lake.
Here’s a list of the other agencies involved:
- Army Corps of Engineers
- Scripps Institute of Oceanography Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
- The Bureau of Reclamation
- Sonoma Water
- US Geological Survey
Together, these agencies have been working for six years to find out if the set of techniques now called FIRO, can help the Army Corps to avoid floods, decrease the impact of drought and provide water to all stakeholders.
The use of FIRO at Lake Mendocino has been a success so far, but the story isn’t over. The FIRO project at Lake Mendocino is just a pilot. The point is to see if FIRO can be used in other places, to provide more water security in a world of ever increasing weather extremes. Now that the pilot project is coming to a close, the second phase of FIRO is underway — looking at how viable it could be in other areas around the West. According to a representative from Scripps, transitioning FIRO from one waterway to another won’t be easy.
“One thing that we’ve seen is that although the general process and the idea of FIRO is very similar across these different watersheds and different reservoirs, you see that they’re very different and they each present their unique challenges,” said Julie Kalansky of Scripps over the phone.
“I have little kids and I often think about it like raising little kids,” Kalansky continued. “In that there are certain things that are similar across all kids but they’re all very unique and need different things to be successful.”
Either at the end of this year or early next year, the team conducting the Lake Mendocino FIRO pilot project will release a report discussing and analyzing the viability of FIRO at Lake Mendocino and in other watersheds. Although the official report hasn’t hit the printer yet, those involved with the project said that considering that the lake is currently holding 18% more water than it would be without FIRO, it can already be considered a success.
“Around the West, people are looking at FIRO and asking how it was done and how it can be implemented in their communities,” said NOAA scientist Josh Fuller, who has been working on the project since it started
But, as he acknowledged, FIRO is just a step in the right direction. It can’t solve all western water problems.