MENDOCINO Co, CA, 1/29/23 — Even while power outages, flooding, and downed trees plagued Mendocino County during the first weeks of 2023, we could take comfort in the fact that on California’s drought-ridden soil, rain is good news. Lake Mendocino hit its highest amount of water storage in more than a decade, and our past month of precipitation is on track with or better than “normal” conditions over the past 30 years.
For Jared Walker, who manages some of our inland water districts including the parched, indebted Redwood Valley County Water District (RVCWD), seeing that influx of rain was “nothing short of incredible.” He said the water table for wells in several districts has increased dramatically.
“The good news for Redwood Valley is that with this, it opens the door to possibly having access to surplus water from [the Russian River Flood Control District] for at least some of 2023,” he wrote in an email to The Mendocino Voice. “To feel more confident in that, we really need some of the late springtime rains that have been very helpful in years past.”
A high water table and a near-full reservoir can no longer be taken at face value: water managers, well users, and those who watched Governor Gavin Newsom deliver a speech on water rights from the bed of Lake Mendocino in 2021 know better than to expect a couple weeks of rain to reverse decades of water insecurity.
According to a table from the California WaterBlog, drought can be considered “over” in only one area of impact this month: soil moisture. The state’s reservoir storage is much improved, but there’s “still a ways to go” to true security. And the impacts of drought on California’s ecosystems (particularly salmon populations), aquifers, and dead trees can’t be fixed by a deluge.
“It’s so much water so quickly,” Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino City Community Services District (MCCSD), told The Mendocino Voice in a phone call during the atmospheric river storms. “But how much of that water is still going to be there six months from now?”
The MCCSD manages groundwater in the village of Mendocino, which has almost no formalized water infrastructure of its own. Rhoades and his team monitor 24 private wells and communicate with private storage tank owners about water conservation measures, as well as conducting water education campaigns.
“It’s hard to quantify exactly how much water we’re missing or losing,” he said. “But if we did a better job of collection and had some storage facilities, it could be very helpful during dry periods.”
When large rainstorms give our landscape the water it needs, the outcome is only as good as our ability to hold onto it. In Fort Bragg, Public Works is working to strengthen its water reserves, in no small part to help out struggling neighbors like the village of Mendocino.
“As far as water resiliency, [the storm] really didn’t make a difference for us,” Fort Bragg Public Works Director John Smith told The Voice. “It adds a little bit of water to our existing reservoir, but really it’s just about groundwater recharge for us — that not only helps us in our spring sources, but it also helps out a lot of the community with their shallow groundwater and wells. But beyond that, it’s pretty minimal.”
Smith focuses on human-crafted solutions that will keep Fort Bragg’s water access assured, even in a state with, in the words of the California Department of Water Resources, “the most variable weather conditions in the nation, often fluctuating between extreme drought and extreme flood.” At the end of 2022, Fort Bragg’s city council approved Smith’s plan to build three new reservoirs for a cumulative 44 million gallons of additional water storage.
Now, Smith is in the process of finalizing funding and design work for the project. This stage of things could take six months to a year, he explained.
“It’s hard to be patient,” he said. “It’d be different if we had all that cash in the bank, but we don’t.”
Deborah Edelman, water program manager for the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District (MCRCD), sang Smith’s praises in a phone conversation this week. The MCRCD’s mission is to “conserve, protect and restore wild and working landscapes” here — which means, in Edelman’s words, the district works “to prepare for, and be resilient in the face of climate change and the impacts of climate change.”
“It’s wonderful that we got these rains,” she said. “It doesn’t really change our work substantially, because our work has always been about building a resilient future in the areas of water, soil and forest and land management — and this ties into every single thing that the RCD does. So you know, at this point we need to be prepared for these contingencies that we know are going to happen: we know at the very minimum we’re going to have a summer without rain, because that’s our natural climate cycle. And we don’t know what’s going to come after that.”
That preparation is a big part of Edelman’s job, but promoting healthy water storage intersects with her colleagues’ departments as well in managing Mendocino County’s land resources.
“The work that the county should be thinking about, and that the RCD is in the business of, is thinking about adaptation and looking to nature-based solutions for water storage and for flood control,” she said. “That means leak detection, drip irrigation, water storage, conversion of turf to xeriscaping, rain gardens, bioretention basins, and promoting healthy soils — because healthy soils can both clean rain runoff and store it. The soils are one of our best reservoirs, and healthy soils can absorb way more rain than unhealthy soils.”
As part of the MCRCD’s work in schools, the soil team demonstrates pouring dirty water through healthy “living” soil full of microorganisms as well as through unhealthy, compacted soil. Moving through healthy soil, the “runoff” will filter through and emerge relatively clean. That’s been a “great outreach program,” Edelman said.
She has worked on numerous water resiliency initiatives around the county, including the Drought Response Outreach Program for Schools (DROPS) to teach stormwater pollution prevention at Ukiah High School and Anderson Valley Junior and Senior schools. The MCRCD installed “low-impact development features” at these schools between 2016 and 2019, adding rain gardens, bioretention basins, and water storage to bolster natural water filtration and slow, spread, and sink runoff. Students worked with the MCRCD to sample water quality. Educational signs about the features remain on campus.
“Just by word of mouth, there’s less flooding on the campus when there’s a big rainstorm,” Edelman said. The project cleans an estimated 6.2 million gallons of stormwater each year, and was recognized in a statewide study as being high-benefit, especially relative to its cost. She loves to imagine sports teams from neighboring schools driving onto campus and learning about stormwater pollution prevention by reading the signs developed with students.
“Long-term, nature-based solutions really are more cost-effective,” she said. “Using a nature-based solution is cheaper, and more lasting than throwing down a bunch of concrete in the long run — and the state has come around to that kind of thinking, which is really excellent.”
She hopes we’ll keep that big picture in mind when we think about rainfall and drought.
“This is great,” she said of the recent precipitation, “And it gives us breathing room to start thinking about how we can keep this water in the reservoir, and in the soil, and how we can protect what we’ve now got — but also plan for future droughts and future floods. In the long term, it really is just part of a much bigger cycle that we need to be prepared for.”
Note: Kate Fishman covers the environment & natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in partnership with a Report For America. Her position is funded by the Community Foundation of Mendocino, Report for America, & our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by emailing [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or at (707) 234-7735. The Voice maintains editorial control and independence.