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Johnny Pinches’ Last Act


Johnny Pinches has announced he will not run for another term as Third District Supervisor. Pinches, a Laytonville rancher, has always put the broader interests of Mendocino County ahead of personal advantage. He wants to do one more big thing for the County before he retires, and it's a very big thing indeed.

Lake Sonoma is full, Lake Mendocino is a mud puddle. Pinches knows why: “We made a bad deal back in the '50s when Sonoma County got the rights to most of the water in Lake Mendocino,” he says with the directness he's famous for. “And they owe us a lot of money.”

If the supervisor can convince two of his colleagues to support him at the October 8th meeting of the Supervisors, Mendocino County will fund a lawyer to compel the Sonoma County Water Agency to obey the law, the law that says if Sonoma County sells Lake Mendocino water to other parties, Mendocino County gets paid.

What law is that?

Pinches cites the State Water Resources Control Board's “Decision 1610” of April 1986, which plainly states, “If surplus water were diverted outside the two counties, the exporting party would need the approval of the party whose surplus was being exported and would have to equitably pay the owner for other surplus water from the proceeds of the export.”

Mendocino County, Pinches emphasizes, never approved the sale of water to Marin County, and Mendocino County never got paid for the water sold to Marin County. And Mendocino County was also cheated on the amount of water at Lake Mendocino it is entitled to.

“This is the crux of my argument,” Pinches says.

Sonoma County has been selling water from Lake Mendocino to Marin for 60-plus years. Sonoma County owns the water because they put up most of the money to build Lake Mendocino.

Pinches points out that Mendocino County “never even got to vote on it,” because, at the time of the mid-1950's deal to build Coyote Dam and Lake Mendocino, Mendocino County supervisors felt no pressure to participate in the construction. If they had voted to pay into the agreement, Mendocino County voters probably would have rejected the whole show because the County was sparsely populated and everyone already had their own established sources of water. Which, by and large, is Mendocino County's water situation today.

Lake Mendocino was seen by the Army Corps of Engineers primarily as a flood control device, and only secondarily as water supply. The Corps controls the flows from both lakes to this day. Congress never did grant the money to round out Lake Mendocino's flood capacity and, from its 1950s beginnings, most of Lake Mendocino's water flowed south where it was sold by the Sonoma County Water Agency to Sonoma County's ever larger customer base, which included customers as far south as Sausalito.

Even after the much larger Lake Sonoma appeared in 1982 behind Warm Springs Dam (erected by the Corps of Engineers) it, too, was seen as a crucial flood control device, but it was also sold to voters as a recreational amenity but not a back-up water supply. Lake Sonoma supplies no water to domestic customers in Sonoma County.

Sonoma County, as Pinches insists, owes Mendocino County a lot of money for Mendocino County water diverted to Marin, and the Sonoma County Water Agency has a lot of money, a share of which, given its years of sales to Marin, is owed to Mendocino County. After all, the Sonoma County Water Agency boasts some million total customers and would seem to be sitting on large amounts of water profits.

Lake Sonoma has two-and-a-half times the capacity of Lake Mendocino, which is presently empty — or almost empty. Lake Mendocino's boat ramps are closed, it's not the attractive recreational draw it usually is. Meanwhile, Lake Sonoma, 30 miles south at Cloverdale, is full nearly to its brim, and a daily hum of recreation keeps nearby businesses busy. And no matter how dry Lake Mendocino might become, Lake Sonoma will remain full to the brim.

As Pinches expresses Sonoma County's apparent water strategy, “If you can spend my money, why spend your own? If Sonoma County can drain Lake Mendocino for free, why should they tap Lake Sonoma?”

Pinches knows his water. His office is stacked with water reports and, recently, a revealing map he triumphantly brandishes.

The map is indeed startling.

It shows that almost 41 square miles of the lush watershed feeding Lake Sonoma northwest of its dam is in Mendocino County, running west nearly into Yorkville in the Anderson Valley. It's a vastness that contains virgin redwood forest and many year-round streams, a mostly uninhabited watershed nearly as pristine as the day God made it. Pinches' freshly minted map shows that Sonoma County not only gets almost all the water stored at Lake Mendocino, but almost all the water Sonoma County stores at its untapped Lake Sonoma also comes from Mendocino County.

But Mendocino County gets nothing but an annual mud puddle at Lake Mendocino.

There are, of course, vested interests in Mendocino County happy with the present water arrangements. The portion of Lake Mendocino's finite waters owned by Mendocino County — a measly 8,000 acre feet (less than 20%) — is administered by the Russian River Flood Control District. Ukiah, for instance, does not use its full share of its allocation. There is also a confusing multitude of water districts from Ukiah to Redwood Valley to the north, and to Hopland to the south, each with its own water policy. But while areas of inland Mendocino County may be satisfied that they have enough water to keep their customers happy, Sonoma County is positively jubilant with the present arrangements. It gets free water it gets to sell for enormous profits while Mendocino County gets just enough water to route to a relatively small number of users between Redwood Valley and Hopland.

Perennially parched Cloverdale, just over the Sonoma-Mendo county line, seems unaware it borders a huge, virtually untapped reservoir to its immediate west at Lake Sonoma. Cloverdale is always looking for water to serve its growing town, looking everywhere but over its southwest shoulder to Lake Sonoma.

Right here in Mendocino County some 1500 home sites in Redwood Valley can't be developed because the Redwood Valley Water District doesn't have the water to supply additional hook-ups.

And Sonoma and Marin just keep on getting bigger and bigger.

“I don't want an opinion,” Pinches insists, referring to his forthcoming pitch to his fellow supervisors for the County to hire a legal water warrior, “I want someone who will go to bat for Mendocino County on this. We take people to court all the time when they don't pay the County for this or that, but we're letting Sonoma County get away with this? This time I'm going right to the public. I need two votes to move it forward.”

* * *

NOTES: The above is intended simply to explain Supervisor Pinches' earnest attempt to defend Mendocino County's interests. It is obviously not an attempt to delineate how the water delivery system and flood control works. The system is complicated. And precarious, considering much of it depends on a mile long tunnel at Potter Valley hand dug by Chinese labor at the turn of the 20th century. That tunnel diverts water from Humboldt County's Eel River. Without it, there would be no water in the summer time Russian River above Healdsburg. A big earthquake could unhinge water deliveries all the way from Potter Valley to Southern Marin. However, we agree with Pinches that at a minimum, Mendocino County should expect Sonoma County to abide by the 1986 agreement that says any sales Sonoma County makes to any agency outside Mendocino and Sonoma counties, Mendocino County should be compensated. If the supervisors agree, and we see no reason why they shouldn't agree, and agree unanimously, compensation from Sonoma County for illegally diverted water would more than cover the expense of a water attorney.

Releases from Lake Mendocino (and Lake Sonoma) are determined by the Corps of Engineers. The primary mission of the Corps is flood control. There always has to be room in Lake Mendocino for Big Rain years. Year round, downstream water flows from Lake Mendocino down the Russian River to the area of Wohler Bridge in West Sonoma County. At Wohler Bridge, the Sonoma County Water Agency diverts the flow to itself, selling the water from Mendocino County to its million or so customers, including customers in Marin County.

Jim Mastin, a former mayor of Ukiah, comments: “I think John’s efforts towards restitution will be applauded more by Humboldt County and the Friends of the Eel River than anyone in Mendocino County. Any restitution, highly unlikely, that uses Decision 1610 as its criteria would more likely accrue to the aforementioned Humboldt County since the argument can, and has, been made that the water held in Lake Mendocino is largely Eel River water and not from the Russian River Watershed. In simple terms the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) owns the water in Lake Mendocino because they paid to develop it. As the AVA points out Mendocino County short-sightedly opted out of the project. Unlike Lake Sonoma, SCWA owes no money these days for Lake Mendocino/Coyote Dam. So here’s the deal as I’m aware of it: Lake Mendocino gets drawn down in order to meet the National Marine Fisheries Services flow requirements for fish above the confluence of the Russian River and Dry Creek (the outflow source for Lake Sonoma just south of Healdsburg). Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino waters should then be melded to meet further downstream needs. But wait, there’s more! In order to pay off the bonds that built Lake Sonoma the SCWA must pay for each acre-foot of water they draw from the lake. Not so for Lake Mendocino since they already 'own' it. Therefore the SCWA prefers to draw down its 'free' water from Lake Mendocino before paying for the 'not free' Lake Sonoma water. Thus we end up with a dry Lake Mendocino while Lake Sonoma stays full and continues to be a recreational wonderland. But wait, again, you ask. If the SCWA drains Lake Mendocino until it can’t squeeze any more water from our coyote (Coyote Dam) and THEN turns to Lake Sonoma to supply Marin County with the water it needs because Marin refuses to develop water sources (similar to Marinites stated refusal to ghettoize themselves by allowing affordable housing in Marinwood) however will they pay their bond debt on the dam? Well, dam! The deal was structured so that Sonoma County taxpayers, not SCWA, would cover the shortfall. Wouldn’t be much since SCWA would be paying for it by drawing down… Oh wait, Lake Mendocino. The dry one. Hmmm…”

Nosing around for water opinions, more than one person offered versions of this opinion: Decision 1610 is interpreted by most people to mean that if water that is subject to Mendocino County's control, (the 8,000 acre-feet right held by the Russian River Flood Control & Water Conservation Improvement District) is sold outtahere, then Mendocino County and/or the Flood Control District is entitled to the proceeds. It makes sense that if you sell water that you have the rights to you get the proceeds. But the language can also mean that if SCWA sells water outtahere that is subject to its (SCWA) control, then Mendocino County is entitled to the proceeds of that also. It goes back to the idea that “it's our water.” Except Mendocino County failed to put up the cash to secure more than the relatively measly 8,000 acre-feet under the control of the Flood District.

First District supervisor Carrie Brown agrees that “1610 says what Johnny says it does, but it's my understanding that Marin gets its supply out of Lake Sonoma.” Ms. Brown conceded that it's all very complicated and she needed “to research further” Lake Sonoma's release policies. She said she thought some of Pinches' interpretations of 1610 did not include its full context.

However the language of 1610 is interpreted, the present split is not good for Mendocino County. Water rights are not based on equity, per se, and are very expensive to litigate, as we've seen often in California history. Given that SCWA has a gazillion more dollars in its legal budget than Mendocino County has, Pinches will have to make the argument of his life to get his colleagues to fight the good fight for Mendocino County.

Pinches brings it all to the Supervisor's meeting of Tuesday, October 8th.

One Comment

  1. Betsy Cawn September 15, 2014

    Regarding your “Notes” (1st paragraph), it is apparently a common misconception that the Eel River “belongs” to Humboldt County. However, a simple illustration of the Sonoma County Water Agency’s “source” clearly shows that the headwaters are located in Lake County. While most Lake County residents still chaff at the “ownership” of Clear Lake waters by the adjudicated rights to the top 7 feet for Yolo County crop irrigators and flood control projects that do little to assist Lake County’s flood-prone shoreline communities, no compensation is forthcoming to the County for protecting the headwaters of Putah Creek (which supplies Lake Berryessa in Solano County and Lake Hennessey in Napa), nor for restoration of the Upper Cache Creek watershed — where BLM and Mendocino National Forest activities have added decades of nutrient loading into Clear Lake. Lake County residents are now being asked to fund (by a half-cent sales tax) a project called “Save the Lake.” The millions of rate payers in Sonoma County, agricultural operators in Solano, Napa, and Yolo, and recreational users of Clear Lake from all around the state and sometimes from across the nation provide no means of protecting these invaluable (not to say “priceless”) water supplies. The SCWA “interactive water supply map” can be viewed at

    Betsy Cawn, The Essential Public Information Center, Upper Lake, CA

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