MENDOCINO Co., 9/5/21 — The city of Ukiah has been relying primarily on groundwater, recycled water and conservation to get through the drought and hasn’t been exercising its right to water from the Russian River, which is experiencing historic low flows. That’s about to change now that the city has agreed to help the coast through the drought.
The city of Ukiah announced Tuesday its planning on once again drawing water from the Russian River — about 1.4 cubic feet, or 10.5 gallons, per second — that it is expected to be trucked to Fort Bragg and sold to water users in the city and unincorporated areas where wells are going dry and buying water in bulk is a necessity. That would put the city in defiance of the curtailment order for Russian River water users issued by the State Water Resources Control Board, which also approved hefty fines for those in violation.
“There’s no other alternative for folks on the coast,” said Sean White, Ukiah’s director of water and sewer. “Even though the situation over here is bad, the situation over there is dire. It’s not like we can just look the other way.”
White has been in frequent communication with the state board and local legislators about the drought. Even though they haven’t yet found an amicable solution that works for everyone, White said he was hopeful because the state seems to agree helping the coast is the right thing to do. The city was also already doing more than the other water users on the Russian River to conserve, he said. Since curtailment orders were issued Aug. 3, White said the city hasn’t been drawing from the river at all. Before the order was issued, the city had reduced how much it was diverting by 70% to 80%.
The amount of water that would be diverted for the coast would be negligible, White said. It would amount to about 25 acre feet of the roughly 18,802 acre feet of water being stored in Lake Mendocino as of Sept. 3. “Trucking water is a horrifically inefficient way of moving water,” White said. “ … At the end of the day, 25 acre feet is just not going to move the needle of destiny on that reservoir.”
The city is prepared to challenge fines from the state if they’re issued because Ukiah has two water rights on the Russian River — one dating back to 1872, before the agency that evolved into the state water board was formed in 1914, and the other to 1954. “The city doesn’t really challenge the state board’s authority to curtail our more junior water right, the 1954 right, that’s predicated on storage in Lake Mendocino,” White said. “But we don’t agree with their curtailment of our pre-14 right, which entitles us to other flows and are actually there this year.”
The county looked at other municipalities that would have been logistically more convenient, like Willits, before approaching Ukiah, White said. Ukiah has been investing in resources to bolster its water supply since 2014 when it experienced a severe drought and is much better-situated to handle the drought this year. The city is currently running entirely off groundwater, which has a yearly surplus of 30,000 acre feet. The city can’t use that water to help the coast because of production limitations, White told the Ukiah City Council at a special meeting Tuesday. “The amount we’re producing is about what we’re using every day,” White said. “So we don’t have a huge surplus of production capacity.”
The county is focused on the logistics of getting the water to the coast, and White said that is still being worked out. The county’s Assistant CEO Janelle Rau told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday that the county was having trouble finding someone qualified and in the area to truck the water from Ukiah to the coast.
Here’s the press release from the City of Ukiah:
Ukiah, CA. August 31, 2021. – In order to help several unincorporated communities on the coast meet their minimum human health and safety needs, Ukiah is working out planning, contracts and logistics to begin delivering water supplies by truck to coastal areas of Mendocino County. Under the current drought conditions, these communities have depleted groundwater supplies and, even with severe conservation measures in place, need support through the sharing of other regional water resources.
“Ukiah is in a position unlike any other water agency in Northern California to help these communities survive this crisis,” said Sage Sangiacomo, Ukiah City Manager. “Our city is carefully meeting our own needs through recycled water, groundwater, and conservation measures, which has allowed us to completely cease diversions from the Russian River. So we are now able to pivot and help our neighbors by sharing a small portion of our pre-1914 water right with them. We are the closest supplier to these cities in need, and intend to find solutions to help them.”
According to the California Data Exchange Center, there is approximately 10 cubic feet per second (CFS) flowing into the Russian River each day. Under Ukiah’s water right that dates back to 1872, the city would divert 1.4 CFS for these coastal communities. Ukiah’s senior water right is an essential part of the region’s water supply portfolio, and serves as the foundation for planning deliveries, coordinating different use scenarios, and making appropriate infrastructure investments that complement this supply.
“Ukiah’s 1872 water right is really the gold standard in our region’s water portfolio,” said Sean White, Director of Sewer and Water for the City of Ukiah. “We have done all our planning based on that premise and built our other resources around it. As we see now during the drought, that water right is of critical importance not just for the city, but for the entire region. Ukiah is best positioned with both the water rights and the systems in place to efficiently and strategically meet water supply needs in the area.”
The Ukiah City Council acknowledged the fact that the State Water Resources Control Board may issue fines to the City for utilizing its water right after the SWRCB issued curtailment notices in August to senior water rights holders on the Russian River, which includes the City of Ukiah. But the Council determined that protecting the health and safety needs of neighboring communities was of critical importance, and directed City staff to move forward with finalizing the water transfer process and agreements. Meanwhile, the City of Ukiah is continuing to try to work with the SWRCB to encourage them to reconsider Ukiah’s curtailment notice in favor of an alternate arrangement to ensure the health and safety needs of these coastal communities can be achieved.
“Every day that passes, the need becomes more urgent in Mendocino where our neighbors are finding more and more of their wells run dry,” said Ukiah Mayor Juan Orozco. “Ukiah is in a position to help, and we feel strongly that we have a moral obligation to help.”
The City is continuing discussions with SWRCB staff to review data and ensure the most accurate analysis by state regulators regarding available water supplies flowing into the Russian River watershed. This supply analysis will continue to inform the diversions and deliveries made by Ukiah to its neighboring cities.