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Noyo River Goes Dry

Fort Bragg entered an official “water crisis” last week when the city council voted unanimously to raise the town’s phased set of water use restrictions to “Stage 4,” triggering significant new cutbacks on water use.

Outdoor watering of lawns and gardens — except for vegetable gardens — with city treated water is banned. So is pretty much any other outdoor water use — construction, car washing, power-washing, filling pools or ponds — unless someone has their own private well. Motels and inns are banned from laundering sheets and towels for anything less than a three-day stay. Restaurants are banned from offering water to customers except on request. All those things can still be done with a city-issued exemption, but exemptions are going to be much harder to get, City Manager Tabatha Miller told council members Monday night before they voted 5-0 in favor of the new rules.

The move was prompted by the expected petering out of the Noyo River as a viable water source. The river, at record low flows since early July, is at times unmeasurable — for all practical purposes dry at the city’s upstream water intake — at other times so mixed with salt water during high tides that using it would damage the city’s treatment plant.

A combination of “Plan B’s,” plus record water conservation by Fort Bragg’s residents and businesses, has kept the city from bottoming out its water supply this summer. Fort Bragg even resumed very limited water sales last week, as a handful of trucks started making their way from Ukiah with county-subsidized water deliveries to Fort Bragg’s treatment plant, and then to customers in unincorporated areas on the Coast whose wells have dried up.

A desalination package plant unit is expected to arrive September 20, according to Miller, that is hoped to make Noyo River water usable during high tides and low river flows, closing a major gap in the city’s supply problems. Along with desal, the Fort Bragg Unified School District has agreed to connect its productive landscaping wells to the city’s treatment plant. Between them, Miller said, the city should be able to “eke by.”

None of those measures would be nearly as effective if Fort Bragg hadn’t already cut back on water use this summer as it never has before. In June, the town was using about 700,000 gallons per day, nearly 200,000 gallons less than the per-day average over the past six years, according to City Hall data. By mid-August, water use had dropped to less than 600,000 daily gallons, fully a quarter less than at the same time last year.

Even so, the Council went ahead with yet tighter restrictions, reacting to both an unprecedented supply situation and unproven (and still not arrived) technology.

“We will eke by if something happens and we don’t get the desalination unit up and running,” Miller said. “But if we get it running, it gives us that breathing room to not have to worry about it (running dry) through the end of the year.”

She emphasized the difficulty of evaluating an unprecedented situation, as plummeting Noyo River levels have eclipsed anything measured before. The Noyo dropped below its previous record lows (1977) around the beginning of July; city measurements show an ominous flat line since September 2, meaning there is still water in the riverbed, but physically too little to pump. The good dose of rain last weekend will provide a bump, no doubt, but nothing more. Without extended rain, Fort Bragg will continue to rely on backup supplies and auxiliary sources. As of last week, the largest of those, the Summers Lane reservoir, was 65% full. At current use levels, the reservoir is projected to fall to 10% by Dec. 1, assuming no significant rainfall.

Miller said whether it rains significantly in the next couple of months will make the difference between just scraping by and not scraping by, whatever that might mean.

“Back in 2015 and 1977, all the bad years, that’s the record — all we had to do is make it through mid-September,” when it started raining, she said. “What we’re looking at now and questioning is, last year we really didn’t get rain until November. If that’s the pattern, we’ve got two more months to go. September and October will be what makes or breaks us.” 

Garbage Contract 

The council gave the go-ahead to negotiate with a new trash hauler. After joining with county government to solicit bids for the next decade of waste disposal, rather than negotiate its own contract as it has in the past, four council members accepted city staff’s recommendation to try to work out a deal with CIS instead of Waste Management, Inc., which has hauled Fort Bragg’s trash since the mid-1990s. Solid Waste of Willits also bid on the contract but was turned down.

Council member Marcia Rafanan voted against changing haulers, saying she was concerned for the fate of current Waste Management workers, many of whom are longtime employees with local roots. She and other council members quizzed a CIS representative over how workers would fare with the change.

The company spokesman promised that, beyond the 90 days of employment guaranteed current Waste Management workers in any potential contract, CIS was interested in keeping all the local workers it could, and that things like paid time off, vacation and health benefits would be protected. 

According to city staff, CIS offered slightly lower rates and scored at least as well in various other categories that Fort Bragg and Mendocino County governments used to evaluate the three companies.

The council voted 4-1 (Rafanan dissenting)  to start negotiating a new contract with CIS. 

Wildlife Ordinance 

The council gave a unanimous OK to the first reading of an ordinance to discourage the feeding of wildlife, especially on the Fort Bragg coastal trail. With testimony before them from trailgoers, Fort Bragg High School biology students, and the Audubon Society, the council advanced the new law designed to gently persuade those disposed to feed the wild things — especially ground squirrels and very especially ravens — not to.

It was generally agreed that Fort Bragg’s raven count is skyrocketing and that some ground squirrels on the coastal trail have reached the dimensions of little footballs. The Audubon Society’s Dave Jensen, who is conducting a years-long study of the coast’s oyster-catchers (the noisy orange and black birds that hang out in the tidepools) said Fort Bragg’s headlands are noticeably bare of oyster-catcher nests. The town’s burgeoning population of ravens — well-known egg stealers — are a very likely culprit, Jensen said.

Overall, according to city staff, well-intentioned humans give wildlife food that isn’t nearly as nutritious as what they can and should find on their own, and the resulting population clusters can spread disease and encourage bad behavior (nipping, etc.) among the animals.

The ordinance generally limits the size of private bird feeders as well, which gave some council members concern about regulatory over-reach. They were assured by staff that the ordinance will be entirely complaint-driven and that the intent is to educate, not punish, although repeat offenders would be sternly warned, and incorrigibles liable for a $100 fine. The council approved the ordinance’s first reading 5-0, with a final vote expected in October.

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