A look at Mendocino County’s water: Rains provide “breathing room,” but only infrastructure and climate solutions can alleviate drought • The Mendocino Voice | Mendocino County, CA The Mendocino Voice


MENDOCINO Co, CA, 1/29/23 — Although power outages, flooding, and downed trees ravaged Mendocino County during the first weeks of 2023, we can take solace in the fact that on the drought-stricken soil of California rain is good news. Lake Mendocino reaches its highest amount of water storage in over a decadeand ours last month of rainfall it is on track with or better than “normal” conditions for the past 30 years.

For Jared Walker, who manages some of our inland water districts, including the Redwood Valley County Water District parched and in debt (RVCWD), seeing the influx of rain was “nothing short of incredible.” He said that the water table of wells in various districts has risen dramatically.

“The good news for Redwood Valley is that with this, it opens the door to the possibility of having access to excess water from [the Russian River Flood Control District] through at least part of 2023,” he wrote in an email to The Mendocino Voice. “To feel more secure in that, we really need some of the late spring rains that have been very helpful in recent years.”


A high water table and a nearly full reservoir can no longer be taken at face value: water managers, well users, and those who watched Gov. Gavin Newsom deliver a speech on water rights from the lakebed Mendocino in 2021 know better than to wait a couple of weeks of rain to reverse decades of water insecurity.

According to a table from the California WaterBlog, the drought can be considered “over” in only one area of ​​impact this month: soil moisture. The state’s reservoir storage has improved a lot, but “there’s still a long way to go” toward true safety. And the impacts of drought on California’s ecosystems (particularly salmon populations), aquifers, and dead trees cannot be repaired by a deluge.


“It’s so much water so fast,” Ryan Rhoades, superintendent of the Mendocino City Community Services District (MCCSD), told The Mendocino Voice in a phone call during atmospheric river storms. “But how much of that water will still be there six months from now?”

MCCSD manages groundwater in the Town 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 conduct water education campaigns.

“It is difficult to quantify exactly how much water we are missing or losing,” he said. “But if we did a better job of collecting and had some storage facilities, it could be very useful during dry periods.”

When major storms give our landscape the water it needs, the result is only as good as our ability to conserve it. In Fort Bragg, Public Works is working to strengthen its water supplies, in large part to help struggling neighbors like the town of Mendocino.

“Regarding the resilience of water, [the storm] It didn’t really make a difference to us,” Fort Bragg Public Works Director John Smith told The Voice. “It adds some water to our existing reservoir, but really it’s just recharging groundwater for us; that not only helps us in our spring sources, but also helps a lot of the community with their groundwater and shallow wells. But beyond that, it’s pretty minimal.”


Smith focuses on human-created solutions that will keep Fort Bragg’s water access secure, even in a state that, in the words of the California Department of Water Resources, “the most variable climatic conditions in the nation, often fluctuating between extreme droughts and extreme floods.” In late 2022, the Fort Bragg 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 the design and financing work for the project. This stage of things could take anywhere from six months to a year, he explained.

“It’s hard to be patient,” he said. “It would 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), the praises of Sang Smith in a phone conversation this week. The MCRCD’s mission is to “conserve, protect, and restore the wild and working landscapes” here, which means, in Edelman’s words, that the district works “to prepare for and be resilient to climate change and the impacts of climate change.” .

“It’s wonderful that we have these rains,” he said. “It doesn’t really change our work substantially, because our work has always been focused on building a resilient future in the areas of water, soil and forest and land management, and this ties into everything RCD does. So at this point, we need to be prepared for these contingencies that we know are going to happen: we know that, at the very least, we’re going to have a rainless summer, because that’s our natural weather cycle. And we don’t know what will come after that.”


That preparation is a big part of Edelman’s job, but promoting healthy water storage intersects with the departments of his colleagues in managing Mendocino County’s land resources as well.

“The work that the county should be thinking about, and that the RCD is involved in, is thinking about adaptation and looking at nature-based solutions for water storage and flood control,” he said. “That means leak detection, drip irrigationwater storage, conversion from grass to xeriscape, rain gardens, bioretention basinsand promote healthy soils, because healthy soils can clean up storm runoff and store it. Soils are one of our best reservoirs, and healthy soils can absorb much more rain than unhealthy soils.”

As part of the MCRCD’s work in schools, the ground team demonstrates the discharge of dirty water through healthy “living” soil full of microorganisms, as well as through compacted, unhealthy soil. Moving through healthy soil, the “runoff” will seep in and emerge relatively clean. That has been a “great outreach program,” Edelman said.

He has worked on numerous water resiliency initiatives throughout 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 enhance natural water infiltration and slow, spread, and sink runoff. The students worked with the MCRCD to take water quality samples. Educational signs about the features remain on campus.

“Just by word of mouth, there is less flooding on campus when there is a big storm,” Edelman said. The project cleans approximately 6.2 million gallons of stormwater each year and was recognized in a state study as having high benefit, especially relative to its cost. He loves to imagine sports teams from neighboring schools driving onto campus and learning about stormwater pollution prevention by reading the signs developed with the students.


“Nature-based long-term solutions are actually more cost-effective,” he said. “Using a nature-based solution is cheaper and more durable than dumping a bunch of concrete in the long run, and the state has come to that kind of thinking, which is really great.”

She hopes that we keep that big picture in mind when we think about rain and drought.

“This is great,” he said of the recent rainfall, “and it gives us a breather to start thinking about how we can keep this water in the reservoir and in the ground, and how we can protect what we have now. — 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 and natural resources for The Mendocino Voice in association with has Report for America. His position is funded by the Mendocino Community Foundation, Report for Americaand our readers. You can support Fishman’s work with a tax-deductible donation here or by email [email protected]. Contact her at KFishman@mendovoice.com or (707) 234-7735. La Voz maintains editorial control and independence.

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