UKIAH, CA, 06/17/2022 – A historic new program in California will allow water right holders in the Russian River watershed to share water allocations among one another this year as they face near-inevitable curtailments on water use. Ukiah played a leading role in developing the new initiative, and its city council voted unanimously to participate in the program on Wednesday night.
In presenting the program before councilmembers, Ukiah Water Resources Director Sean White suggested that it arose as an alternative to possible litigation against the State Water Resources Control Board.
“The item before you is really a product of the duress we experienced last year,” he explained.
The 2021 Emergency Regulations from the State Water Board curtailed all water right holders in the Upper Russian River Watershed, except to allow them to divert the minimum amount of water needed to meet minimum human health and safety needs. As a result, Ukiah faced possible fines from the State Water Board for diverting 1.4 cubic feet per second of water from the Russian River after entirely halting its diversions when curtailment orders were sent out in early August, before the city and the water board reached an agreement allowing Ukiah to sell water to residents and businesses on the coast suffering from drastically reduced water access. (Mendocino and Fort Bragg entered a Stage 4 water crisis last summer).
Essentially, when water supplies are limited, the State Water Board issues curtailments around who can draw water. The hierarchy is such that the most senior rights holders get all the access, while smaller junior rights holders can be left with nothing.
White said after he and Phil Williams, special counsel to the City of Ukiah, had “long, stressful conversations” with their colleagues at the state level, they eventually realized they “all kind of wanted the same thing, but unfortunately there was no mechanism for that thing to happen.”
The Upper Russian River 2022 Voluntary Water Sharing Program provides a mechanism for the mutual aid both bodies hoped to achieve. The program’s most basic goal is to “ensure that no Participant is unable to divert sufficient water to satisfy minimum needs through the current water year.” The deadline to enroll is June 20; Williams said many junior rights holders have begun to register but that the program will only really succeed if senior rights holders like Ukiah participate, too. When enrollment is complete, the State Water Board will determine water allocations to each for the year based on enrollment and supply.
“It is projects like this and moments like this that give me hope,” State Water Board Chair Joaquin Esquivel said in a news release, noting that the program advances a common vision for successfully administering water rights.
A fact sheet on the program details reasons for signing up, which include the chance to be part of a “locally driven voluntary solution,” the oft-true reality that “better accounting leads to better decision making,” and simply, that “some water is better than no water.”
However, Williams noted that an emergency variance request by PG&E does have the potential to nearly negate the program’s impact this year by dramatically reducing water availability. PG&E recently asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reclassify the water year type from dry to critically dry; if approved, this would set East Fork Russian River flows to 5 cubic feet per second, rather than the target 25 cubic feet per second. The commission is expected to approve or deny the request within a couple of weeks, Williams said.
But even if capacity in the Russian River watershed were dramatically reduced this year, White feels the program sets a valuable precedent.
“Having this in place … still creates a path for the next drought, which we know is not that far away,” he said.
Williams, who was one of the leaders in developing this multi-county and state-level initiative, took special time to commend Ukiah’s councilmembers on weathering an exceptionally difficult drought year in 2021.
“The city of Ukiah was on point here from the very beginning and the State Water Board is keenly aware of that,” he said, later adding, “I have never been more proud of a client in my life. I know how difficult those conversations were for you all last year.”
White also pointed out that, as a senior water right holder, Ukiah potentially has more to lose than others from enrolling in the program. But, he said, voluntarily enrolling “supports the overall well-being of our community, and to me if that’s losing, I’m happy to lose.”
Developing the program was a team effort from multiple stakeholders. A summary report specifically named Williams, Sam Boland-Brien and Erik Ekdahl from the State Water Board, Devon Boer with the Mendocino Farm Bureau, John Nagle with the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, Beth Salomone with the Russian River Flood Control District, Adriane Garayalde, Laurel Marcus with Fish Friendly Farms, and Terry Crowley with the City of Healdsburg among others.
Prior to the council unanimously approving Ukiah’s enrollment in the program, Mayor Jim Brown thanked Williams for his work.
“You led Ukiah through what really could have been a real troublesome time,” he said.