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Supes’ Belated Drought Declaration

At the Tuesday, January 7, 2014, meeting of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, John Pinches, newly seated as Board Chair, inserted a refreshing note of reality into an otherwise self-congratulatory parade of local officials who seemed to think the tardy declaration of a water emergency was as good as 40 inches of rain.

Holly Madrigal, current Mayor of Willits, and the leading candidate to replace Pinches as Third District supervisor, set the unreal tone. “I want to thank Carre [Supervisor Brown] for bringing this forward. I know that Willits and Mendocino County were some of the first to raise our voices, but we are not going to be the last, I do know that. And maybe this will add the car washing effect of causing rain to fall from the sky, as to declaring this. But I think if there is an upside to this it is that we are getting our ducks in order. We are making a plan for emergencies [the Board has no plan whatsoever] that — unfortunately drought emergencies are not the only ones that we are going to experience…”

Madrigal rambled on to say she was concerned about frozen water pipes because if they crack water is lost, a fact most of us are aware of.

Madrigal concluded, “…So I just want to thank both our residents and I know the residents of the county to make sure that you all know that we are absolutely willing to participate in a coordinated conservation effort if one is drafted.”

County Garbage Czar Mike Sweeney made the sensible suggestion that the Supervisors call their emergency water committed something more specific than “Ad Hoc Committee.” “I think the importance and the role of this committee is going to involve public support and awareness and you might consider naming it something other than ‘ad hoc’ which is sort of a lightweight name. I think you have a clear indication that many of the parties, and many of the stakeholders, want to be intimately involved in this which is of course essential, so perhaps something like ‘Drought Emergency Council’.”

Then it was time for Supervisor John Pinches. A lonely and ignored advocate for pre-emptive water policies all his twelve years in office. “I have a lot to say on this issue. I've been working on trying to get people excited in his county about another water supply for my whole political career. I mean, I feel a little bit distressed, like Redwood Valley and the city of Willits, I proposed projects like Dos Rios and Scout Lake and nobody was interested! Nobody was interested!”

Pinches has suggested siphoning off a tiny proportion of the Eel River's winter flow and storing it at Dos Rios for low rain years. And he has repeatedly pled for converting the Boy Scout Lake near Willits to a municipal water supply. And he has famously agitated for a more equitable distribution arrangement with Sonoma County for the water in Lake Mendocino.

“For over 50 years,” Pinches continued, “our water policy in this county is that we get excited because we have all these drought emergencies and everything and we pass around all these pieces of paper but it brings nothing.

“Then all of a sudden it rains and everybody says, Okay, things are happy! Let's wait until our next drought emergency. It's ridiculous. The state is the same way. They have a bigger problem than we do, but it’s the same situation. The governor appoints a task force. Folks! We have to come up with more water supply. It's plain and simple! Any third grader in Mendocino County can figure it out! We got Lake Mendocino out here that everybody's focused on and 87% of the water is owned by Sonoma County. And another big thing that most people overlook is the diversion that brings the Eel River water through the tunnel into Lake Mendocino has been cut back about 40% in the last few years!

“So we don't even have the water that we did a few years ago! Figure it out! You can come up with resolutions and pieces of paper and everything, but somebody has to get serious about getting together and building a water supply! I don't care if it's deep wells, or if it’s storage or whether it’s Scout Lake or whatever the project may be. But until we come together and work on supply…”

Pinches went on to say that Redwood Valley may have to consider a deal with Lake County “to get a little water out of Blue Lake, which is completely full and truck it into Redwood Valley. Otherwise people are going to have to start ordering porta-potties and forget about washing and taking showers and everything. There's a big difference between being low on water and being out.

“We should have been doing these water restrictions months ago! Not here in the middle of January! I mean, this is crazy! I'm a little bit critical of all of us! We as leaders have done no planning. Not that we've done poor planning, we've done no planning! And now were all sitting here with our hands in the air saying what will we do next? Oh — Pass around a bunch of pieces of paper. If we are serious about getting together and creating a committee, and it has to be a serious committee, not just some quasi-ad-hoc committee — and get the parties involved — Brooktrails, and Redwood Valley, and Willits — the parties that are most affected…”

Supervisor John McCowen: “I don't disagree with a lot of your remarks.”

Pinches, taking a drink of water, “I feel guilty about drinking this water.”

McCowen: We will put a surcharge on it. This board could have taken action with a little bit of foresight maybe a couple of months ago. Some of the districts and cities have been taking measures. Notwithstanding the reality of everything you said, I think adopting this resolution today still make sense and we've heard from some of the stakeholders that it will help them in going to their constituents and explaining why it's necessary to put conservation measures in place, strong conservation measures. So it still makes sense to go forward with this resolution.” …

Pinches: “I'd like to add that this Board made a deal with Scout Lake up east of Willits. We went up there and made a deal with the Boy Scouts of America, the owner. We paid for the design. We have the raising of that lake designed and ready to go.... Keep in mind the county of Mendocino is not a water purveyor. We don't sell water to anybody. That's up to the water districts and municipalities. But we went ahead and spent the money to do that, completely designed a project to raise the Scout Lake which would have put water by gravity flow into Willits or Redwood Valley or even Brooktrails, and we got that done and it just stopped because nobody was interested. Nobody needed the water. Everybody said, Oh, we’re fine now. It rained. We don't need any water. So I kind of put the blame on you [referring to some politicians and officials in the audience]. It could be argued, why should the taxpayers of the Coast and South Coast spend money on designing the project, Scout Lake, when they were not going to benefit? But they did. My colleagues went along with that. We have the designs and everything for raising Scout Lake to supply gravity flow water to those areas. The reason it stopped — it didn't stop because there was no money. It stopped because there was no interest! The people who would benefit were not interested! So you cannot really say that this Board of Supervisors has done nothing. We have done a lot. That project is there. It's designed, ready to go. Nothing has changed. The only thing that's changed is that it still ain't raining. But it's really up to the entities out there who would benefit, Willits, Redwood Valley, Brooktrails, to come forward and say Yes, let's move this down the road. Or we can just go home today and pass the papers around and say well, Let's just wait till the next rain.”

Holly Madrigal returned to the podium: “I just want to disagree somewhat on your recollection of history as far as the Scout Lake project. Willits is supportive of that project and the County was running with it and then the County was no longer running with it.”

Pinches: “The reason the County stopped is because Willits showed no interest in it whatsoever. I was told by your former mayor that they didn't need the water — their lakes were plenty full.”

Madrigal: “I would disagree. However, to this topic of conversation, we have studies that say that a 1977 style drought year which everything is saying it might be worse than that at this point, surface water is not going to be sufficient for our emergency needs. The city of Willits has been drafting plans to look at Scout Lake; that's what we did in the past. I have been in communication with the Boy Scouts who said, We will not let the city of Willits go dry on our watch. They want to be good neighbors to us. However, it still brings issues with surface water treatment. We have Jesse here who can speak more to the style and method of surface water treatment. But we are most likely going to be voting tomorrow night for our emergency plan. We are going to have to do wells most likely. The City of Willits has wells which some of our neighbors are not as fortunate. If Brooktrails runs out they are really up a creek in that area. Just to clarify that, the city of Willits has been planning for emergency, this emergency, we've been planning it for some time and asking our residents to conserve for some time, but most likely the situation we are in now will probably have to be doing wells because it's the most cost-effective and frankly the most reliable”.

Supervisor Dan Hamburg: “It's very advisable that we move forward with this committee. I don't know whether we should have done it two months ago. We can't do anything about that. But we can act today and I hope we will do that and I appreciate you and supervisor Brown bringing this forward. I think it's really incumbent on us to take this action because we seem to be in a new normal. I haven't been around here very long, only 40 years, but I've never seen this kind of condition. Even on my own property, I've never seen my own individual water supply so low, particularly this time of the year of no rain in sight. And 2013 was basically a wipeout for rain. I don't know, I think it was about 7 inches for the entire calendar year. Something like that. The last major rain we as we had was over a year ago in December of 2012.” …

Hamburg put DROUGHT 2013-14 in perspective.

“Nobody has mentioned the elephant in the room which is climate change, but I think it is the reality. I think it's sort of like when we talk about the economy and when is the economy going to come back? Some people say this is the new normal and the new normal is a very slow growth economy. I'm afraid the new normal is very low rainfall climate. It's not just Mendocino County. This is 80% of California and this is also all across the United States! Look at the drought maps! Look at the state of Texas and other parts of the country where there hasn't been much rain for years! Very abnormal situations. So this is not something that is going to be addressed simply but it is something that we as elected officials have to address and I really hope the board will move forward with the recommended action today.”

Pinches: “I certainly support the resolution, although I think it means nothing other than maybe some help from the state at some point in the future. But I think it has to be expanded to include the affected players like Willits and Redwood Valley and Brooktrails who should be on the committee. I am reluctant to serve on this committee for the simple reason that this is going to be — if we are going to be serious about doing something about our water supply in Mendocino County, it is going to take more than this next calendar year. I'm not going to be here after this year so we have to get some people interested in water in his county. What I'm looking from my four colleagues — Carre [Brown] has certainly expressed her interest because part of her district is in dire straits. But it's going to take some real step up commitment from my colleagues here to take this on because whether you are talking about financing a water project and going forward, it is going to be something that's going to be ongoing more than this calendar year. I hope that if we start getting a gullywasher tomorrow morning and it rains ten inches tomorrow night that that still wouldn't stop the process of looking for a better water supply for the north end of this County. All my knowledge and information I have are out there. I'm willing to do what I can. But I would like to see at least two of my colleagues get involved in this. I know it's hard because of the Brown Act to put three board members on a committee. But this is an unprecedented situation and we better start dealing with it because for the last 50 years we have just stuck our heads in the sand and said it’ll probably rain next week at. And it probably has. Maybe it'll rain next week. But this is the most serious issue that I've seen in my whole political history and here we are in the middle of January of 2014 and our water situation with the 40% cutback in the diversion in the last few years, we've got a hell of a lot less water than we did a decade ago.”

Supervisor Dan Gjerde: “The Coast definitely is in a drought also. I'm sure the city of Fort Bragg would want to participate in this because they are dealing with this also. They have not yet announced a water emergency but I suspect it will come very soon. Their water supply is important for people who live outside the city because as you may know there are some water purveyors on the coast who will go and buy water wholesale from the city and sell it to people on the north coast, in Mendocino, and Casper, and other places on the coast who will buy water from the city of Fort Bragg when it's available. The city has a water tank on the east end of town on Highway 20 and it cannot sit there stagnant, so sometimes they will sell that if there is a little margin there. But the city does not really have extra water. The city of Fort Bragg is working on two projects, two small projects, to improve its water supply: they are trying to buy the Highway 20 property that the Rec district owned and needs to sell that was originally planned as a regional park and there is a known significant amount of water that site and the city, if it buys that property at a reasonable price, would use it as a series of wells to provide water to the city. The city is also moving ahead with a small pond as a secondary water supply.”

Pinches: “The goal of this committee should be to come up with the future of our water supply in Mendocino County, not just something that will carry us over until it rains again next year. Before we had these moratoriums and the last two drought years we have had a lot of people who couldn't even get a water hookup.... Why don't we at least try to come up with a water supply that will meet the needs of Mendocino County. It would be great if we had enough water supply to sell to somebody who needs it. Let's at least come up with a plan that fits our needs. We are not talking about growth here. Growth of Mendocino County hasn’t been at 2% for the last three decades. We are just talking about just enough to meet our local needs. I don't see anybody wasting water out there. That has to be the goal of this committee! It's a real serious project.” …

“Also, if this county continues to focus on Lake Mendocino as its sole water supply we are never going to get anywhere. Because if you raise Lake Mendocino, Sonoma County is still going to get more than 80% of the water there. The problem with Lake Mendocino is that it was never kept full in the first place so why would you build a bigger house tank for your water supply if you can't keep the one you have now full? We need to look throughout this county to create another water supply that will meet our needs because the focus always drifts back to Lake Mendocino and let's see what we can do about Lake Mendocino. Some people say let's raise it. Some people say let's dredge it. The fact of the matter is that Sonoma County controls it. We ain't going to change that. Let's look elsewhere. This county is a big county. We have a lot of dry canyons and a lot of places where you can drill wells and whatnot. But if you stay focused on Lake Mendocino I think would mean that somebody will be sitting here 50 years from now with the same dilemma. Lake Mendocino is a done deal, let's look elsewhere so we can have our own water supply. We don't need to share it with the thirsty counties to the south.”

McCowen: “Part of the problem with Lake Mendocino is that it is managed on a year-to-year basis currently. If the dam was raised it would allow it to be managed on at least a two-year basis and we wouldn't find — part of what happened this year, we dumped a lot of water, or the Army Corps dumped a lot of water, to prepare for rains that never came because it's primarily a flood control reservoir.”

Pinches: “Lake Mendocino is managed by people who don't have the interest of Mendocino County in mind. Whether it's the Corps of Engineers or the Sonoma County Water Agency, we need to get a water source that we control.”

After more discussion about process, membership, how much and who to include in the resolution, and how it might be staffed by County employees who are already stretched thin, the Board voted unanimously to declare the resolution, appoint Supervisors Carre Brown and Dan Hamburg to it, and revisit the declaration on January 21 for renewal and possible expansion.

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