Community Matters: Will North Bay water crisis persist?

For Petaluma’s Don Seymour, the ongoing megadrought facing California is a daily concern.

As water resources manager for Sonoma Water, the public agency supplying drinking water to cities from Novato to Windsor, it’s his job to plan, develop and manage water quantity and quality for 600,000 North Bay residents as well as the endangered chinook salmon and steelhead fish populations in the Russian River Basin.

Seymour told me last week that two seasons of abnormally low rainfall have sent reservoir levels plummeting to historic lows. The water system’s original reservoir, Lake Mendocino, is currently below 34% of its water supply target, while Lake Sonoma, the larger water supply which became operational in 1983 following the 1976-77 drought, sits below 52% capacity.

To supplement this dwindling supply, the city of Petaluma recently began pumping 700,000 gallons per day from its small underground aquifers but the limited emergency supply is only a small fraction of the city’s daily water needs.

Petaluma is now under strict orders to reduce its overall water consumption by 25%, so all residents and businesses must take immediate action to significantly reduce their water usage. Yet according to figures reported in last week’s Argus-Courier, the city’s water use in June was down by less than 9% against that goal despite restrictions under which water-wasting scofflaws can incur fines of up to $1,000.

While a large majority of residents have for many years done a terrific job of conserving water, it troubles Seymour when he sees a resident hosing down a driveway with potable water or generously irrigating a green lawn on a warm, sunny day, both of which are now prohibited activities in Petaluma.

Given the extreme drought and grass lawns’ huge demand for water, Seymour says homeowners should strongly consider letting their lawns go brown this year. They can do that or use sheet mulching to replace them with drought resistant native plants as many local residents have already done. Petaluma schools, public institutions and commercial property owners should do the same. According to the most recent figures, such entities have not yet begun to reduce their potable water use at all this year and that needs to change.

Thanks to the city’s Ellis Creek Wastewater Recycling Facility, the city years ago began using highly treated wastewater to irrigate several public parks, school playing fields and a golf course on the city’s eastside, thus saving many millions of gallons of potable water each year.

Following the recent repaving of Maria Drive and the concurrent installation of the “purple pipe” infrastructure used to deliver recycled wastewater, several additional eastside public parks and school grounds are soon expected to begin receiving this increasingly precious commodity that will eventually be made available to Lucchesi Park and large water users on the westside of town.

Maximizing recycled wastewater is a terrific way to save potable water and people should continue to conserve. But what if this coming winter is similar to the last two extraordinarily dry winters?

According to Seymour, previous droughts have been two-year events with generally more rainfall than today’s very severe drought, and they were usually followed by a very wet winter that restocked reservoir supplies. But with regional and global weather patterns dramatically disrupted by intensifying climate change, historical climate trends are becoming much less reliable.

“If we get one more exceptionally dry year, we will experience something that no one in this area has ever been through,” Seymour warned. This would likely include the introduction of strict water rationing regulations and the very real potential for shutting off water service to homes and businesses that continually flaunt such restrictions.

To avoid that, Sonoma Water has adopted numerous innovative techniques to maximize water supplies and last year implemented a first-in-the-nation meteorological technology program that saved 20% of the water capacity in Lake Mendocino, preserving a whopping 11,000 acre feet, according to Seymour. Because water must sometimes be released from the reservoir to prevent potential downstream flooding during winter rain storms, the new program’s enhanced monitoring and weather forecasting tools helped to greatly reduce the amount of water released last winter.

Seymour says the emerging technology -- which can better predict the amount of water expected during the all-important “atmospheric river” events and helps ensure the maximum amount of rainfall is captured and stored for the dry season -- is planned be utilized early next year at Lake Sonoma to save even more water.

The agency also began testing surface water recharge in the Sonoma Valley earlier this year whereby high winter water flows are diverted and pumped into aquifers deep beneath vineyards and other open space lands.

With these and other new water saving practices, Seymour says he is confident that even if we have one more season of very light rainfall, “Lake Sonoma will make it past October of 2022.”

Beyond that, however, the outlook is not so clear.

The urgency of the water crisis has prompted many to wonder why we are not building new reservoirs or desalination plants.

But new dams take decades to plan and construct and are extraordinarily costly.

Desalination plants, says Seymour, “could ultimately provide a viable supplement” for some communities like Petaluma and Sonoma which have close access to the saltwater in San Pablo Bay.

Another option for consideration: creation of a “Ground Water Replenishment System” such as that in Orange County which operates the world's largest water purification system for indirect potable reuse. Sometimes derisively referred to as “toilet to tap,” the system takes highly treated wastewater and purifies it using a three-step advanced treatment process producing high-quality water “that meets or exceeds all state and federal drinking water standards,” according to the county’s website.

None of these options is cheap or easy to implement and none are currently under review.

But if next winter turns out to be as dry as the last two, you can expect to hear a lot more talk about such options in 2022.

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

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