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Redwood Valley Going Dry

Redwood Valley has the most fragile water supply in Mendocino County. Because of its limited storage capacity, the Redwood Valley County Water District has been on a new-hookup moratorium since 1989. Redwood Valley County Water District sells its water to existing domestic users and for agricultural irrigation and frost protection, mostly for grapes but some livestock.

In this 2014 drought year Redwood Valley County Water District set a goal of “reducing overall consumption by 50%” — a substantial reduction of water use. Most of Redwood Valley County Water District’s water comes from Lake Mendocino which, despite recent rains, is still way down, and will be back to large puddle levels by mid-summer. Making matters worse, Redwood Valley County Water District has no formal right to water from Lake Mendocino, but they do have a court stipulation saying that the Russian River Flood Control District must sell “surplus” water to Redwood Valley County Water District.

The rub for the Redwood Valley County Water District is who gets to decide what is “surplus” and who gets to set the price? Answer: the Russian River Flood Control District whose board is dominated by Ukiah area grape growers who, predictably, are not too excited about giving up their remaining stores of precious frost control and irrigation water to Redwood Valley grape growers. Or anyone else.

The Russian River Flood Control District gets to decide how much the Redwood Valley County Water District will pay for their water. At present domestic users in Redwood Valley pay about $4 per thousand gallons, more if they use more, up to $5.50 per gallon.

Redwood Valley's ag consumers pay a flat rate of $225 per acre-foot (326,000 gallons) no matter how much they use, which translates to only 69¢ per thousand gallons, meaning that the grape growers in Redwood Valley are getting some very cheap water — when they can get it. And which also means that since the Redwood Valley water is purchased from the Russian River Flood Control District with some kind of markup we can assume that the Ukiah area grape growers who are regular members and customers of the Russian River Flood Control District, are getting an even bigger water discount.

* * *

Last week the drought may have taken its first victim: Redwood Valley grape growers — at least according to their own hyperbolic rhetoric about not having enough water.

On Saturday, the Ukiah Daily Journal’s Justine Frederiksen reported:

“Redwood Valley Cuts Water To Ag UsersAttempt to divert more water through Potter Valley was unsuccessful

The Redwood Valley County Water District voted Thursday night to stop providing the water its customers use for their crops and animals.

“I am deeply pained by this; this is awful,” said Bill Koehler, the district's general manager, describing the vote as “the most painful moment in my entire association with that board.”

Currently, the valley's 4,000 to 5,000 residents are limited to 50 gallons a day per person. Come Monday, Koehler said, the district's agricultural meters, which provide unpotable water unfit for human consumption, will be shut off.

“I hate this; we're going to get hit hard,” Koehler said, describing the valley's $60 million wine industry as “gone.”

Board member Pam Ricetti abstained from the vote Thursday night because, as a vineyard owner, she would have directly benefited if the resolution to cut off agricultural water users did not pass.

“I have 36 acres of grapes, and if we get four or five days of frost, it'll freeze the vineyards,” Ricetti said, explaining that she does have a couple of ponds, but not enough to handle several days of frost.

“We haven't had any so far, so we've been really lucky,” she said. “I'm keeping my fingers crossed.”

Ricetti said she was not sure what someone with horses or other animals will do for water.

“They're going to have a tough go,” she said. “It's a horrible situation. It's sickening.”

With Ricetti abstaining, the resolution passed 3-1 with Jeanette Hallman casting the “no” vote.

In the days leading up to Thursday's meeting, the RVCWD and other agencies tried to obtain more water by diverting more of the flow from the Eel River's Scott Dam through the Potter Valley Project and into Lake Mendocino.

According to the request made to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the RVCWD was hoping to obtain 800 acre feet by “increasing flows in the East Branch Russian River as long as water is available and all Reasonable Prudent Alternative-required minimum flow requirements are met.”

The request was made under the “emergency clause” of the RPA, which dictates how much water Pacific Gas & Electric (which owns Lake Pillsbury and Scott Dam) diverts through Potter Valley to Lake Mendocino.

Guinness McFadden, one of the Potter Valley Irrigation District's board members, said multiple agencies discussed the request and all were in verbal agreement: RVCWD, PG&E, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Friends of the Eel River, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Marine and Fisheries Service and FERC.

With the amount of water that was flowing through Lake Pillsbury, McFadden said it would have taken less than two days to collect the desired 800 acre feet, all while keeping minimum flows in the Eel River, if the request had been approved.

However, McFadden said when FERC requested agreement in writing, all of the agencies provided it except for NMFS, which determined that the situation in Redwood Valley did not qualify as an emergency.

“Although NMFS thought this could be an opportunity to potentially help RVCWD with its water situation due to the drought and small quantity of water requested, we have determined that the request does not qualify as an emergency under the RPA,” wrote Dick Butler, supervisor for the Santa Rosa office of NMFS. “In particular, this request does not clearly indicate that this is a sudden, unexpected occurrence that involves a clear and imminent danger that demands immediate actions to prevent or mitigate loss of, or danger to, life, health, property or essential public services.

“If the situation does not improve and an emergency situation arises and is consistent with the above definition, NMFS is amenable to considering an exception,” Butler continued. “While the request was for a limited amount of water and for a short duration utilizing water above the NMFS required minimum flows, flows in the Eel River in excess of the minimum required flows do provide benefits to the Eel River, especially to out migrating salmon and steelhead.”

“We're in a deep pickle of fish,” said Ricetti, predicting that since the RVCWD cannot legally shut off the fire hydrants, people wanting to steal water for their crops, legal or otherwise, may pull up trucks and siphon water from the hydrants.

“If people see that, call the (Mendocino County Sheriff's Office at 463-4411),” she said. “It's a felony to steal that water.”

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The Redwood Valley wine industry is probably not “gone,” but they certainly are at risk of major crop losses, especially if there’s a late freeze and they have no frost protection water. (That’s probably why the National Marine Fisheries Services ruled that the Redwood Valley growers were not in an “emergency” — at least not until they get hit with real frost.

The tight water situation highlights one of the major problems with Mendocino’s highly balkanized water arrangements, which are difficult enough when there’s enough water, but downright cutthroat when there’s not.

We know of a few local grape growers in Anderson Valley who also have unusual water source arrangements — private arrangements which, because of terrain or plumbing convenience, make one grower dependent on water from another grower. As you can imagine, these relationships can get testy. Imagine what would happen if that same water competition occurred between entire districts. Since there’s no oversight, no one with the ability to allocate available water reasonably and fairly, the problem usually deteriorates to “I’ve got mine — (and at my highly favorable price).”

That seems to be what’s happening between the Russian River Flood Control District grape growers and the Redwood Valley grape growers — although you have to read between the grape leaves to get any real sense of the picture.

Former Redwood Valley County Water District Board member Hal Voege recently filled in a few of the gaps between the grape leaves with a letter to the Ukiah Daily Journal last Thursday (which was not posted on line and which did not identify Mr. Voege as a former board member of the Redwood Valley County Water District):

Shutting Off Redwood Valley

To the Editor:

On Tuesday, March 25 and Wednesday, March 26 the Ukiah Daily Journal ran two front page articles about the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation District and Redwood Valley. Important information was missing from those articles. So here, as Paul Harvey would say, is the rest of the story.

Tuesday's article ran under the headline “RRFCD both to sell water to RV.” It fails to mention that in their meeting the month before the RRFCD board, including Mr. Lee Howard, voted unanimously to cut off Redwood Valley's water supply without looking into any alternatives. Here is what that cut off would have meant: It would have meant that when the ponds above our water treatment plant where empty our faucets wouldn't work, toilets wouldn't flush, and if there was a fire it would just have to burn because the fire hydrants would be dry. Meanwhile their agricultural customers water allocations were only reduced 50% (now 25%). This is not a normal year; it is a drought emergency year. In such a year to choose to cut off the water supply to 4000+ people is callous and inhumane.

So what changed their minds to offer to sell Redwood Valley 355 acre-feet of water? It wasn't newfound generosity. It was the state Department of Public Health insisting that they could not simply cut off Redwood Valley's water supply that forced them, grudgingly, to sell us a bit of water. It is clearly an issue of public health and safety.

At the same time RRFCD decided to stop selling water to Redwood Valley, a Redwood Valley resident, Rosalind Peterson, whose home is not connected to Redwood Valley County Water District, filed a protest with the State Water Resources Control Board stating that RVCWD was illegally diverting water from Lake Mendocino because it had no water right nor a signed a contract. She has done this many times before. While RCCWD doesn't have a usable water right at this time, it does have a stipulated judgment from the court that Redwood Valley must sell it surplus water at a fair price. RRFCD tried to claim it has no surplus water but in fact it had 800 acre feet of water that the city of Ukiah chose as a humane gesture not to use this year. I'm sure there will be haggling as to whether that is actually “surplus.”

There is some history regarding that stipulated judgment. When Redwood Valley Water District was first being formed it went to RRFCD and asked to become a customer and be sold water. RRFCD said, “No.” The issue went to court which issued the stipulated judgment. The good news was that RRFCD was required to at least sell us surplus water. The bad news was that Redwood Valley Water District was not allowed to hook up any new customers except in very limited and critical situations. Since the customer base cannot be expanded, as costs rise, rates also rise, and people who would like to be connected cannot be.

On Wednesday came another front-page article describing a “letter” that the RRFCD Board voted on to distance themselves from the actions of Lee Howard, a longtime trustee and president of the RRFCD Board. Certainly Mr. Howard as a private citizen can speak to anyone he wants, but his standing didn't hurt his chances of getting heard by state officials. Mr. Howard was apparently still trying to convince the State Water Resources Control Board that it should stop Redwood Valley from pumping water. Why else would he be in discussions with the Chief of Enforcement? His behavior isn't unusual — in fact, appealing to the State Water Resources Control Board to insist that there was no surplus water, only to later admit that there was, has been a long-standing ploy of RRFCD. It has been used for many years, most recently in 2009. Perhaps the ploy was a bit too obvious this time. Perhaps the letter was needed for damage control.

Isn't it ironic that Redwood Valley is the only Water District that actually has a pump in the Lake yet it is unable to buy any of that water from RRFCD unless it is “surplus"? Can someone explain to me why we can't become a customer of RRFCD the same as Willow district and the city of Ukiah and end all this stupidity? The argument that there is not enough water in a normal year simply won't “hold water.”

Ukiah residents should note that Mr. Howard was also discussing Ukiah's plan to drill a new well. Why would he be discussing that if not to convince the State to look into whether it was underflow from the Russian River and thus under state control? If the state were to decide it was underflow, it could maintain that the City could not legally pump that water. This would, at least, lead to long and costly litigation.

What is the bottom line here? RRFCD's response in the current situation has been nothing more than a naked power play. They seem determined to control all the water from Redwood Valley to Hopland and thus determine the price and sale conditions for that water. So remember this year's events the next time RRFCD suggests how easy it would be to join them and get active access to water. Take their words with a grain of salt and look carefully at what is really on their agenda.

Hal Voege, Redwood Valley

* * *

“A Naked Power Play”? Mr. Voege, a former author and business training consultant from Sacramento, is clearly not mincing words. But the underlying point is that the grape grower-dominated board of the Russian River Flood Control District (which controls Mendo’s 8,000 acre-foot water right out of Lake Mendocino) needs a Board with a broader cross-section of representation. Otherwise — short of some miracle reconsideration of Supervisor John Pinches’s water storage and allocation proposals — the Ukiah-area grape growers may be the last vineyards standing in inland Mendocino County if the drought continues much longer.

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