In 1979, the federal Bureau of Reclamation made the first of two loans to the Redwood Valley County Water District for a network of pipes, valves, and pumps to draw from Lake Mendocino reservoir's historically fickle supply pool. Redwood Valley's irrigated wine industry, which today consists of 2,200 acres of corduroy-like rows of vines, sprouted from that federally-funded irrigation system, today yielding an annual crop worth between $7 million and $13 million per year.
The Redwood Valley County Water District also supplies domestic water users to the tune of 1,450 hook-ups, on which 5,200 people rely for cooking, drinking, and cleaning, according to a 2014 estimate by Water District personnel.
In 2015, however, the Redwood Valley Water District's staff elected to pipe its entire Lake Mendocino supply, or about 1,000 acre feet, to the grape growers and other agricultural users. Domestic users, on the other hand, have received their water from the Millview County Water District's supply in northern Ukiah since last January 8.
Under this arrangement, one of the main water sources for Redwood Valley households is a well beneath the facility to which the Millview Water District's name refers: the Masonite industrial plant north of Ukiah, which was the long-time home of the Masonite Corporation's Ukiah lumber mill. Millview gained ownership of the well in 2006.
This unorthodox method is part of a new approach to water supply management that is quietly reordering the Greater Ukiah Valley's water system. Thanks to funding from the Proposition 84 water bond, approved by California voters in 2006, each of Ukiah Valley's water districts — Redwood Valley, the City of Ukiah, Millview County Water District, Calpella County Water District, and Willow Water District — are becoming connected via a series of pipes, known as intertie pipes, that allow them to deliver groundwater to one another while water is under ration.
The intertie that has allowed delivery of Millview water sources to Redwood Valley in the past 14 months was constructed in mid-2014, with $399,000 in Proposition 84 funds. The new pipes extend from the 5200 block of North State St., the location of a Calpella County Water District pumping station, to the 7000 block of East Road north of Highway 20, as well as a new pumping station on the 6700 block of Central Avenue west of Highway 101 near Uva Drive. Millview and Calpella had an existing intertie connecting their districts.
Meanwhile, interties connecting Millview, Calpella, and Redwood Valley to the City of Ukiah and Willow County Water District, which serves about 3,700 people south of the Ukiah city limits, have also received funding. According to Keith Wallace, an engineer at the California Department of Water Resources, the remaining interties and associated water delivery systems will likely go out to bid next month.
In an interview, Redwood Valley County Water District General Manager Bill Koehler described the larger purpose of the interties: consolidation of Ukiah Valley's balkanized system of water districts. “It's part of our goal to consolidate the four county water districts into a single county water district,” he said. “We all play under exactly the same rulebook, so it only makes sense for us to start the process by joining the four districts together.”
Koehler estimates that Redwood Valley, Calpella, Millview, and Willow will be prepared for their merger in roughly two years, which would have to be authorized by the Mendocino County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo). In the meantime, the intertie system gives the districts far greater flexibility in dealing with water supply restrictions. The interties draw their water from wells, which the State of California still only loosely regulates, and which can move between districts without a state permit as would be required for surface water delivery.
“The State Water Board does not have permitting authority over percolating groundwater diversions,” California State Water Resources Control Board Public Information Officer Tim Moran confirmed in an interview.
Unlike many other counties, Mendocino County's water agency has no water rights of its own. Rather, a series of water districts provide delivery services, with much of their supplies coming from the largest water right holder of any kind in Mendocino County, by far: the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District, which has had a right to draw 8,000 acre feet from Lake Mendocino, since the 50s when the Lake Mendocino reservoir filled behind Coyote Valley Dam (if it rains), and which sells water both to vineyards and pear orchards near Ukiah and Hopland, as well as to (privately owned) Rogina Water Company in Talmage and the Hopland Public Utilities District.
The rest of the water in Lake Mendocino, more than 88 percent of the total in storage, belongs to the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). Chartered by the state in 1949, SCWA is well known for carefully guarding its water supply. It was built on the same model as Los Angeles's infamous Metropolitan Water District, with the Sonoma County supervisors serving as its board of directors.
The reason for Sonoma County's dominance of Mendocino County's water supply is straightforward, however: Sonoma County put up far more money to help with the construction of Coyote Valley Dam. Redwood Valley, which elected not to put up money toward building the great reservoir, got no water rights. Thus, Redwood Valley now relies on water that is “surplus” to the requirements of the Greater Ukiah Valley's other water utilities.
Those conditions made Redwood Valley especially vulnerable to the drought-driven water supply shortfalls of 2014 and 2015. In February 2014, the extreme drought conditions had caused Lake Mendocino's water level to drop to within nine feet of the Redwood Valley County Water District's intake pipe, with the level dropping 2.5 inches per day. At that point, Redwood Valley County Water District's board of directors voted to cut off all deliveries to vineyards — a decision that sparked outrage among Redwood Valley's politically and economically influential growers.
In an e-mail exchange I obtained while researching this story, the Redwood Valley district's Bill Koehler expressed his exasperation to the Russian River Flood Control & Water Conservation Improvement District's general manager at the time, Sean White (who since moved to a job as a Ukiah city staffer). “I’m trying to stay relatively professionally neutral in this. That being said ever since we shut off all ag my life has been hell,” Koehler wrote. “We’re looking at 20-50% damage to a $60 million wine industry and there is a lot of anger.”
Koehler then noted that many grape growers downstream of Lake Mendocino also own vineyards in Redwood Valley. “Many of our growers here are also your customers south of the lake,” he wrote.
Sean White had previously written to Koehler encouraging him to take a "glass half full” approach, noting that he had helped convince the City of Ukiah to give up its right to 800 acre feet of water from Lake Mendocino for the year, about half of which White's district then supplied to Redwood Valley. “Hopefully we can stay focused, fix the problem, and make sure we never have to deal with this again!!!” White wrote.
Consolidation of water districts appears may be part of the “fix” to which White was referring. The Russian River Flood Control District has also considered annexing Redwood Valley County Water District, giving Redwood Valley a stronger place in line for water – a matter complicated by Redwood Valley's loan debt to the Bureau of Reclamation.
Critics of the interties' construction say they emerged from unaccountable decision-making processes, which prefigures the county water district consolidation and are likely to pre-determine how much development — including new vineyards and subdivisions — take place in the Ukiah Valley. Already, the Ukiah Valley is home to approximately 40,000 people, or nearly half of Mendocino County's near 90,000 population, as well as the vast majority of its non-marijuana agricultural sector.
Phil Baldwin, who served on the Ukiah City Council from 1998 to 2014, notes that the decision for Ukiah to participate in the intertie system was never put to a vote of the City Council.
“I'm a believer that water trumps planning,” Baldwin said in an interview. “If the water infrastructure is there, and the water source capacity is there, that will dictate the future land use of the territory, rather than any planning document created under the auspices of an elected body, like the general plan.”
Last year, Baldwin ran for the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District Board of Directors, but lost to a pair of vineyard owners, Al White and Tyler Rodrigue. The latter, a member of the Fetzer wine family through his father's marriage, is a long-time manager of institutional real estate capital for a variety of Bay Area companies that develop luxury housing.
Records kept by the Redwood Valley County Water District show that its agricultural customers used about 87% of all water delivered in the Valley from May to September of last year. But the roughly 1,000 acre feet that Redwood Valley's wine-grape vineyards and other farms purchased from the Redwood Valley County Water District last year was less than the 1,600 acre feet they use in peak years, Bill Kohler says, as a result of making limited supplies stretch out during the drought.
Meanwhile, Koehler says Redwood Valley's domestic customers were not under a mandatory rationing order in 2015 as they were in 2014, but they still kept their average per-person household use to 60 gallons per person per day — far less than the state average for a rural residential area.
“Our customers respected the urgency and the need to be very frugal with their water,” Koehler notes.
(This is the first in a series of reports on Redwood and Ukiah Valley water.)