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Healdsburg could order mandatory water cutbacks

Jerry Weaklend washes his car at the Healdsburg Auto Wash, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Published: Friday, January 17, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2014 at 6:30 p.m.

Healdsburg could become the first city in Sonoma County to impose mandatory water conservation measures as drought continues to grip the North Coast.

The City Council on Tuesday is set to consider a staff recommendation to approve a Stage 2 mandatory compliance water alert because Stage 1 voluntary conservation measures, in effect since last summer, failed to achieve the desired result.

Most, but not all of Healdsburg’s municipal wells rely on water from the Russian River. With upstream releases into the river from Lake Mendocino significantly reduced, city officials want to make sure the wells don’t run dry.

“We can see the Russian River is way down from what it would be now. It influences the level of groundwater and how easy it is to get out,” said Healdsburg Utilities Director Terry Crowley.

Mandatory conservation measures are similar to the water use guidelines in Stage 1, but require strict compliance.

Residents and businesses are only allowed to irrigate outdoors during evening and early morning hours, only every other day, and not on Mondays.

They also cannot allow runoff, and residents washing their cars and other vehicles have to use a bucket and shut-off nozzle.

Nonresidential customers have to cut their water use to 80 percent of what they used last year.

Excessive water users face potential fines and their service can be curtailed, but city officials say they aren’t looking to punish anyone.

“You want to work with people to educate (them) on how to conserve water,” Crowley said.

It isn’t certain that the City Council will adopt mandatory measures on Tuesday. Council members could wait to monitor the situation a little longer.

Mayor Jim Wood is not inclined to sit back. “I think it behooves all of us to really step up the water conservation. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life in Northern California,” he said.

“There has been conservation on the minds of people. But this is different, pretty serious,” he said of the lack of rainfall. “I think we need to move to the next level.”

Last week, Mendocino County declared a drought emergency and Willits is restricting households to 150 gallons of water daily.

Cloverdale, just to the north of Healdsburg, is wholly reliant on the Russian River for its potable water. But city department heads are recommending the Cloverdale City Council initially impose only voluntary water cutbacks.

Crowley said Healdsburg’s wells along the Russian River are able to meet demand now, but that could change if the warm, dry weather persists.

With very low river levels, “the pumps could suck the wells dry and potentially you’d have to wait for hours” for the groundwater to recover, Crowley said.

River flows are so low now, he said, that “it looks like a creek. We’re renaming it the ‘Russian Creek.’”

That was the one small joke in what city and regional water officials view as an increasingly serious situation, brought on by the driest year in 119 years of record keeping, according to the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Press Democrat records show that Santa Rosa ended last year with just 8.71 inches of rain, compared to a average annual precipitation of 32.22 inches.

As of Dec. 31, releases have been curtailed from depleted Lake Mendocino, a Russian River reservoir and an important source of North Coast drinking water.

On Friday, the river was running at 44 cubic feet per second near Healdsburg, compared to a median daily average over the past 73 years of more than 1,500 cubic feet per second at this time of year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Healdsburg attempted to get its customers to voluntarily reduce water consumption by 20 percent in the latter half of 2013. Initially, use decreased by 15 percent in July, compared to the same month the year before. In August it was reduced by 10 percent. But in the following two months, overall water use in Healdsburg was the same as the year before, and by November it increased by 15 percent, Crowley said.

City officials speculated that people may have been watering their lawns longer as they waited for rain storms that never arrived.

Healdsburg also has wells on the west side of Highway 101 that draw from Dry Creek, but those usually aren’t utilized until summer.

The source of that water is Lake Sonoma, which provides water to about to about 600,000 users in Sonoma County and parts of Marin. It has about a year’s worth of water left before the Water Agency would need to ration supplies.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.

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