Community Matters: Drought is our new normal

As California’s multi-year droughts become longer, hotter and more frequent, communities like Petaluma will need to work much harder to adapt to this new reality. That’s according to John Shribbs, president of the Petaluma Wetlands Alliance and a longtime science teacher at Casa Grande High School, who says that scientists warned us for decades that the dramatically rising level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels would spawn more destructive wildfires, longer droughts, more intense heat waves, ongoing sea level rise and collapsing ecosystems.

Many of those predictions, says Shribbs, have become an uncomfortable reality much earlier than originally predicted. And while it’s important to implement national, state and local policies to one day reach a goal of net zero carbon emissions, Californians must quickly adapt to an increasingly hotter, drier climate that’s expected to be around for at least the next several decades and probably much longer.

Here in Sonoma County, coupled with enhanced wildfire prevention and suppression practices, local government agencies are working overtime to preserve an adequate water supply for residents, agriculture, fish and wildlife. Three years of abnormally low rainfall have sent county reservoir levels plummeting to historic lows, so municipalities like Petaluma, which get the bulk of their water from the Sonoma County Water Agency, have been acting with urgency.

According to Petaluma Public Works Director Christopher Bolt, last September the city declared a drought emergency that set a goal to reduce its overall water consumption by 30% below its 2020 levels by enacting Stage 4 of its Water Shortage Contingency Plan mandating a host of very specific water use restrictions. A widespread and well-publicized campaign was launched informing residents of prohibited activities (like not washing vehicles in driveways and only watering landscape two nights a week) and offering incentives such as free water conservation devices; rebates for installing high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers; free water-wise house calls; and free sheet mulching supplies to replace water-sucking lawns with drought resistant native plants. People were also encouraged to report water waste and the city has since stepped up enforcement to include education, courtesy notices, scores of warning letters and even a few dozen fines.

Despite all these efforts, Petaluma has, remarkably, not reached its targeted water reduction goal in any month since November.

Apparently, not everyone has gotten the message. Perhaps some mistakenly believe that the abnormally heavy rainfall we enjoyed last fall erased the drought. It didn’t. The first four months of 2022 were the driest in more than 125 years, so the drought is still very much with us.

While a majority of Petalumans have done a terrific job conserving water over the last several years, you can still see some residents hosing down a driveway with potable water or generously irrigating a green lawn on a warm, sunny day, both of which are strictly prohibited.

As a result, city officials, are ramping up their drought outreach campaign with staff conducting daily water waste patrols with special emphasis on high water users who are being made aware of a new state law that prohibits the watering of decorative turf on commercial, industrial, and institutional properties including home owner associations. As with most of the city’s public parks, unless irrigated with recycled water they will all need to go brown this summer.

Given rapidly dwindling reservoir supplies, Petaluma recently received notice from the water agency that its monthly water allocation has been curtailed for the summer months. To supplement, the city is currently pumping 1 million gallons per day from its underground aquifers, but the limited emergency supply is only a fraction (around 10-15 percent) of the city’s daily water needs.

Thanks to the city’s Ellis Creek Wastewater Recycling Facility, the City continues to use highly treated wastewater to irrigate several public parks, school playing fields and a golf course on the city’s eastside, thus saving an estimated 650 million gallons of potable water every year. Petaluma is now expanding this recycled water project by adding additional public properties along Maria Drive and Sonoma Mountain Parkway.

A $2.9 million grant from the Department of Water Resources is funding construction of a recycled water pipeline to serve nearby vineyards and agricultural properties along Adobe Road and Lakeville Highway.

Thanks to another state grant, Petaluma will soon evaluate the prospect of taking surplus drinking water from the Russian River system during wet winter months and storing it in underground aquifers which could then be tapped during dry summer months to help expand the city’s emergency supply.

To further expand supplies, the city is currently building a new underground well with plans to build another before next summer.

Clearly, city officials are doing everything they can to ensure that the water keeps flowing, but they need everyone’s help to make it work and that’s not yet happening.

Without more public cooperation, the city could soon be forced to enact an unprecedented Stage 5 level of its water reduction plan that would prohibit all landscape irrigation except for food gardens and mature trees.

Beyond that, another dry winter could well lead to even stricter water rationing regulations and the very real potential for shutting off water service to homes and businesses that continually flaunt water waste ordinances.

John Shribbs says that while he’s encouraged by what local government agencies are doing to expand and conserve water supplies, it’s vitally important for everyone to learn this simple fact: water is rapidly becoming an increasingly scarce commodity in the western United States due to climate change.

As a member of the Petaluma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s advisory committee, Shribbs is championing better wetlands management practices that include more water catchment basins along creeks and rivers and the establishment of home and business-based small micro watersheds. Shribbs passionately encourages people to consider installing greywater and rain-catchment systems in their homes and replacing water-hungry lawns and landscaping with drought tolerant native plant species.

Despite the enormous hurdles posed by climate change, Shribbs remains hopeful that by working together and committing to best practices with respect to conserving our natural resources that Petaluma and our neighbors in the Bay Area and beyond can still flourish in the years ahead.

(John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at

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