In summary

The state water board curtailed water rights in response to the drought and ignored Ukiah’s seniority rights and its sustainable water portfolio.

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By Sean White, Special to CalMatters

Sean White is the director of water & sewer for the city of Ukiah.

December brought significant snowpack to the Sierra, breaking records set in the 1970s. But areas like Mendocino and Sonoma are still showing severe drought conditions, and our state’s reservoirs have a long way to go to recover from last year’s historic lows. 

Recent rains unfortunately do not mean rest for California water policymakers, local governments and regional water agencies. With increasingly severe weather conditions year after year, we anticipate that California will be facing significant water deficits on a recurring basis. 

Knowing this now, water planners and state leaders can be smarter about how we prepare and how we respond, with the goal of avoiding the extreme steps taken by the state last year to restrict water use.

Ukiah’s experience with water shortages and the Russian River watershed’s dramatic, headline-capturing shortfall in 2021 provides key information for water managers on the state and local level to learn – specifically, the need for strategic, regionally-focused, long-term preparation to prevent last-minute turmoil and curtailments.

To start, city and agency decision-makers must prioritize local infrastructure investment. Conservation and emergency cutbacks are not sufficient. Instead, local communities need a dynamic system that provides flexibility and responsiveness to changing supply levels, demand levels and supply sources.

The city of Ukiah recognized years ago that investing would be critical for ensuring a reliable water supply, given our region’s dependence on the Russian River and increasing drought conditions. In addition to implementing conservation measures for business and residential properties, we shifted emphasis to recycled water supplies and groundwater. 

Our recycled water project already helped reduce diversions from the Russian River by 70%-80% this past summer and helped Ukiah residents avoid the most draconian cutback measures.

As part of their strategic planning, decision-makers should look beyond borders at regional needs. Water connectivity is real; building capacity for one region alone in the face of limited shared water resources risks leaving other communities vulnerable to water poverty. 

Because we pursued a diverse water portfolio, Ukiah was able to share water to help meet the human health and safety needs of our neighbors. The city’s senior appropriative water right from 1872 proved extremely important as a regional asset, allowing Ukiah to help nearby coastal communities that ran out of groundwater this summer and had no other options.

Finally, the state must reward, not punish, local agencies that plan for responsible water use and make critical infrastructure upgrades. State rules should not impose unfair restrictions on water right holders who have taken steps to ensure they can keep water flowing even when drought conditions are exacerbated. Creating redundancy through diversified water portfolios is the responsible, not wasteful, way forward. Any future curtailments have to be better informed on both the demand and the supply side of the equation, recognizing that water in California is not a zero-sum game.

Given Ukiah’s extraordinary efforts to plan and prepare, we have significant concerns with how the State Water Resources Control Board curtailed pre-1914 water rights in response to the drought. This ruling completely ignored the city’s unique position in terms of its water right seniority, its investments in a diverse and sustainable water portfolio, and its rare ability to execute necessary water transfers. Water curtailments that fail to recognize unique conditions discourage thoughtful planning and thwart the ability to coordinate creatively with regional partners.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Water Resilience Portfolio identifies four goals: maintain and diversify water supplies; protect and enhance natural ecosystems; build connections; and be prepared. The state should incentivize cities and stakeholders that are actively working in alignment with the portfolio, rather than hinder their ability to serve their communities. 

A smart approach is collaboration on plans that leverage shared technology and engineering, establish regional conservation strategies and respect existing water rights.

The realities of California droughts will persist well into the future. Incentivizing and rewarding foresight and thoughtful planning, not forced restrictions, are the keys to helping communities develop meaningful water resiliency.

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