MENDOCINO COUNTY, CA, 8/2/22 – With two supervisors dissenting, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors approved further work on developing a countywide water resource team in collaboration with the University of California Cooperative Extension on Tuesday morning.
Although concerns around water access are unanimous, board members disagree on what kinds of actions at the county level will best address short-term needs to provide county residents with necessary water, and long-term needs for clear systems of countywide water governance. Unsurprisingly, financial tensions also ran high, since employing a hydrology expert and devoting time to grant writing will necessarily come with a price tag.
First district Supervisor and Vice-Chair Glenn McGourty drafted a plan which the board approved in a “conceptual” capacity, with caveats. He proposed a collaborative effort between existing county staff across departments to “provide expertise, write grants and administer programs”; and a Water Resource Specialist to work from the UCCE offices, organize the in-house team across multiple county departments, liaise with an outlined list of UCCE experts, maintain a database of Mendocino County water needs, and find resources to address them. The county would hire for that position — and that person would also serve as the staff point person for the Drought Emergency Ad Hoc Committee and the contact person for State Water Resource Agencies, he outlined in his presentation.
As an alternative, Howard Dashiell, Mendocino County’s director of transportation, proposed hiring someone with “technical ability” as well as executive savvy to continue to build capacity within the Mendocino County Water Agency. This course of action would best support Mendocino County Water Agency implementation plan’s goal of “sustained governance,” he said. But McGourty said fully staffing a water agency would have cost implications the county isn’t prepared to take on at this point.
“Our water needs, drought conditions, and climate change are knocking on the door yesterday,” second district Supervisor Maureen Mullheren said in response, adding, “I would like to see us be able to grow our water agency internally in the future, but I don’t think the timing’s right.”
McGourty feels that partnering with UCCE — while not building internal capacity at the same level — would offer chances to collaborate with the UCCE Area Water and Climate Change Advisor as a hydrology expert in addition to access to consulting water specialists at UC Davis, UC Berkeley, and UC Riverside (many of whom have conducted water studies in Mendocino County).
Financial concerns still exist with McGourty’s proposal, though; he estimated that hiring a Water Resources Specialist would cost around $225,000 for $200 pay per hour and 1,000 hours of work, and that augmenting UCCE’s services in communications, travel, and IT needs would cost around $25,000. In addition to these costs, CEO Darcie Antle said that labor costs for existing staff to participate in grant writing and meeting attendance could double that final number.
Ted Williams, chair and fifth district supervisor, was clear about his concerns around a possible $500,000 in spending, asking: “How will this produce water?” He also said that while the state does want to fund grant projects, those funding opportunities can be focused less on directly providing water aid and water storage, and more on studying water resources.
“Everything we’re spending has a cost for the next generation,” he said.
But Mullheren countered that help can’t come in an informational black box.
“We don’t know where to go if we don’t know where we are,” she said, explaining that the amount of groundwater stored in some parts of the county is simply unknown.
Mullheren, Williams, and McGourty ultimately approved the plan, with the caveat that McGourty return to the board with a list of countywide projects for a consultant to take on, clear and measurable objectives for those projects, and a breakdown of staff time and costs. Per Williams’ direction, McGourty will also work with Antle on financial planning for the water resource team in an effort to avoid further deficit.
“Frankly, the best thing for the county would be for you to forget about some of your other assignments and work on water for us,” Williams told McGourty, who agreed, pointing to the need for supervisors to step in when the county doesn’t have staff to work on these initiatives.
Third district Supervisor John Haschak and fourth district Supervisor Dan Gjerde ultimately voted against the motion to approve McGourty’s plan for a water resource team. In the course of the discussion, Gjerde returned to points he’s made in the past about the need for the county to nail down the role of a water agency.
“For customers of a water district, the entity that’s going to help them is the water district itself,” he said, arguing that the county should assist the districts and help monitor well issues, not “provide a lead role.”
For his part, Haschak felt that staff have the capacity for grant writing projects and providing expertise without hiring a consultant in collaboration with UCCE.
McGourty reiterated that this plan is a “short-term solution” responding to a “crisis situation.”
“Longer term, it’s going to take more thought,” he said.