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PG&E plan to sell Mendocino County hydropower project unsettles North Coast water system

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

PG&E intends to sell a remote Mendocino County hydropower project at an auction this fall, a decision that means little in terms of its meager electrical output but sends a ripple through the water system that supplies cities, residents and ranchers from Ukiah south through much of Sonoma County and into northern Marin County.

Many of the more than 600,000 customers and residents who get their water from the Russian River have no idea how much of it flows from the Potter Valley Project’s two dams on the Eel River and through an aging powerhouse in the out-of-the-way valley about 20 miles north of Ukiah.

There’s no indication yet that PG&E’s divestiture from the 110-year-old project — or the alternative of transferring it to local control — would jeopardize the annual diversion of more than 20 billion gallons of Eel River water into the Russian River. But the utility’s announcement opens the door to changes water experts have anticipated and unsettles communities across two counties that rely on it.

“The water supply needs to be protected,” said Janet Pauli, a longtime Potter Valley rancher and irrigation district official. “It’s very serious. There’s no way around it.”

Lake Mendocino, the reservoir near Ukiah, depends on the Potter Valley diversion to supply dry-season Russian River flows down to Healdsburg and supplement the supply the Sonoma County Water Agency delivers to customers in Sonoma and Marin counties. Most is taken from water stored in Lake Sonoma, the region’s largest reservoir.

But without the diversion, Lake Mendocino would shrivel in size in the driest years ahead, diminishing flows in the upper Russian River, a local government study found.

Read more at http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/8314850-181/pge-plan-to-sell-mendocino

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Wet winter banishes Northern California drought, fills North Bay reservoirs

Nick Rahaim, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Rain storms this winter have swelled water in Lake Sonoma to near-record levels, submerging once-dry boat ramps, repeatedly flooding the dockside marina and banishing the bath tub rings that for years were a telltale sign of the state’s prolonged and withering drought.

Only in the El Niño winter of 1995 did the reservoir in northwestern Sonoma County — the North Bay’s largest, created behind Warm Springs Dam in 1982 — rise higher than it did early this week, when it topped 125 percent of its capacity, with enough water to cover 300,000 football fields 1-foot-deep. The bountiful supply is more than twice the volume of water held in the lake in November 2014, amid the five-year drought that forced conservation of drinking water and cut into recreational opportunities for boaters and others.

The outlook now could hardly be more different.

With torrents of runoff coming into Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino, the Russian River’s smaller reservoir to the north, dam managers are now cranking up their releases to preserve room for additional storms. Another front is expected to arrive Wednesday night.

“We’re releasing a lot of water like we’re supposed to — we need to keep space open for the next big storm,” said Mike Dillabough, chief of Operations and Readiness division for the United States Army Corps of Engineers’ San Francisco Division. “But we’re told it’s burgeoning on a record year.”

Read more at: Wet winter banishes Northern California drought, fills North Bay reservoirs | The Press Democrat

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Critics of proposed low-flows for Russian River blast supervisors 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Critics of a permanent plan to curtail summertime flows in the Russian River blasted Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday, with many saying the long-anticipated shift in water management would devastate lower river communities and economies dependent on recreation and tourism.

A string of speakers implored county officials to rethink their strategy or risk increased nuisance and toxic algae that could severely impact quality of life throughout the county. About 80 people attended the public hearing at the supervisors’ chambers, the only one planned as part of an environmental impact report scheduled for release later this year.

Others Tuesday night challenged the science behind the move, questioning the rationale of a 2008 federal opinion by the National Marine Fisheries Service that instructed the Sonoma County Water Agency to reduce artificially elevated summertime flows in the river and in Dry Creek as a way to improve habitat for threatened and endangered salmonid fish. At issue is a proposed overhaul of the agency’s management under which releases have been made from Lake Mendocino into the Russian River and from Lake Sonoma into Dry Creek, which joins the river near Healdsburg. County supervisors serve as the agency’s board of directors.

“Nothing good will come out of a low-flow proposal,” said Linda Burke, whose family has operated Burke’s Canoes in Forestville for two generations. “This is draconian. It’s unheard of. It’s sad, and it’s disgusting.”

The plan is informed by the 8-year-old federal decision that deemed existing operations a potential threat to the habitat and survival of struggling coho salmon, chinook salmon and steelhead trout, all of which are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Federal fishery experts say juvenile fish need low-velocity streams in order to thrive while feeding, resting and building up strength to go out to the ocean. It’s also believed reducing flows would encourage maintenance of a freshwater lagoon at the river mouth near Jenner, enhancing the survival of young steelhead trout.

Reserving a cold water pool in Lake Mendocino for release each fall also would benefit migrating chinook salmon adults as they come in from the ocean and head upstream to spawn, agency personnel said.

Read more at: Critics of proposed low-flows for Russian River blast supervisors | The Press Democrat

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Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino plan for stronger measures to ward off invasive mussels 

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino were ringed in recent years by the telltale signs of drought, their diminished water levels leaving exposed earth that in wetter years is well-submerged.

Winter and spring runoff helped to replenish the two reservoirs, which together supply much of the North Bay’s drinking water and provide popular destinations to cool off in the summertime.

But a big threat to the two lakes remains in the form of tiny mollusks — quagga and zebra mussels — that are invading fresh water bodies across California and the West, hitching rides from one lake or reservoir to another on boats and trailers.

The bivalve mollusks, imports from Eastern Europe, swiftly colonize large areas, clogging intake pipes, covering docks and damaging other infrastructure while upending aquatic ecosystems.

Their spread, from the Southwest and north from Southern California, has reservoir operators throughout the state on high alert. For several years, Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino have been on the front lines of that endless fight, officials say.

“Aside from the drought, the threat of invasive mussels taking hold in either of the two lakes is one of the most significant issues facing our region today,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who called the reservoirs “prime targets for infestation,” given their popularity among boaters.

The federal agency that oversees Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino is set to step up its fight against the mussels with mandatory boat inspections slated to begin over the next year.

Read more at: Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino plan for stronger measures to ward off invasive mussels | The Press Democrat

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Storm fills North Bay reservoirs, easing region’s drought 

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

With two Russian River reservoirs brimful of runoff from a prolonged storm, the North Bay region is nearing an end to its multi-year drought, a water management official said Friday.

“It looks like a March miracle,” said Brad Sherwood, spokesman for the Sonoma County Water Agency, which supplies water to 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties. “Our water supply system hasn’t looked this good in more than three years.”

Lake Sonoma west of Healdsburg, the region’s largest reservoir, was at 107 percent of capacity for this time of year, and Lake Mendocino, the far smaller reservoir near Ukiah, was at 117 percent, with both lakes the fullest they have been in early March since 2012.

The atmospheric river that delivered the latest rainfall offered not only significant drought relief, but also relented Friday afternoon, offsetting flood forecasts and giving the ground a chance to absorb water, Sherwood said.

The Russian River water system is independent from the network of major reservoirs and canals that serve most of California, which remains under mandatory water conservation measures.

Read more at: Storm fills North Bay reservoirs, easing region’s drought | Sonoma Index-Tribune | Sonoma, CA

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Lake Mendocino nears winter capacity; Lake Sonoma close behind

Glenda Anderson, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Recent rainstorms have swelled Lake Mendocino, reopening the reservoir to motor boats for the first time since August, swallowing islands raised by the drought and bringing fresh hope to ranchers and water officials.

By Thursday afternoon, the lake had reached 98 percent of capacity for this time of the year, when some space is reserved in the reservoir to help with flood prevention.

Once the level hits 100 percent, dam managers must increase releases to keep it at that level, unless they are given permission to hold back additional supplies.

In March, the reservoir’s storage capacity will rise from 68,400 acre-feet to about 110,000 acre-feet, a change aimed at maintaining adequate water supplies throughout the dry season for people, fish and agriculture along the Russian River. The key to recovery from the drought is filling the reservoir to its maximum capacity in the spring.

Read more at: Lake Mendocino nears winter capacity; Lake Sonoma close | The Press Democrat

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El Niño forecast boosts hopes for wet season

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Battered by a historic drought that has fed raging wildfires, shrunk reservoirs and prompted water curtailments and conservation mandates, Californians are yearning for relief.

It can only come from the skies, and now, with winter on its way, the question on the minds of more than 38 million Golden State residents is: Can El Niño, the weather phenomenon named for the Christ child, deliver meteorological salvation across the land, from the arid south to the normally damp north?

For the North Bay, where that answer is still highly anticipated, a shortfall on the wet forecast may not portend an immediately deepening disaster, as it could for much of the rest of the state.

The region draws its water from the Russian River and local wells, independent from the Sierra Nevada snowpack — the lowest in recorded history last winter — and the state’s major reservoirs, now 70 percent to 90 percent empty.

The North Bay’s major reservoir, Lake Sonoma, with a two-to-three-year supply when full, remains at more than 70 percent of its capacity.

Just an average amount of rainfall over the next six months in Santa Rosa — about 36 inches — would go a long way toward topping off that supply and other local reservoirs, significantly easing drought in the region, if not ending it, said managers of the Sonoma County Water Agency, the primary source of water for 600,000 North Bay customers.

Read more at: El Niño forecast boosts hopes for wet season | The Press Democrat

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Feds OK extra water storage at rising Lake Mendocino

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Russian River water managers and consumers they serve in Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties got a break Wednesday from the prospect of watching precious water flow to the ocean from the rapidly filling Lake Mendocino reservoir near Ukiah.

Raised to more than 97 percent of storage capacity by last weekend’s deluge, the reservoir was on the verge of crossing a threshold that would require the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates Lake Mendocino’s Coyote Dam, to begin releasing water in an effort to preserve the reservoir’s ability to prevent flooding in the event of another major storm.

The last time that happened was in December 2012, when a multi-day downpour brought the reservoir to the 94,000-acre-foot level, cutting deeply into the flood protection pool that tops out at 116,500 acre-feet.

Unfortunately, there were no major storms for the next five months, deepening a statewide drought now entering its fourth year.

read more via Feds OK extra storage at rising Lake Mendocino | The Press Democrat.

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Changes to water releases from Lake Mendocino helping

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A change in releases at Lake Mendocino is helping water suppliers hold back precious reserves as the region’s dry spell wears on and threatens to cut historically low reservoir stores to critical levels.

The new protocol could prevent as much as 5,000 acre feet of water — one-sixth of Lake Mendocino’s current supply — from slipping down the Russian River before the end of November, an official with the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District said.

“Five thousand acre feet is going to be about what we used for the entire year this year, so it’s a meaningful amount for us,” the district’s general manager, Sean White, said. “It’s our whole annual budget.”

Savings projections supplied by the Sonoma County Water Agency were closer to 3,600 acre feet, with the potential for salmon migrating upstream triggering additional releases after Nov. 1.

via Changes to water releases from Lake Mendocino helping | The Press Democrat.

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Mendocino County seeking changes at Coyote Dam

Tiffany Revelle, UKIAH DAILY JOURNAL

The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors is getting ready to send a letter to Congressman Jared Huffman supporting a bill that would compel the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to rethink the way it runs the Coyote Valley Dam, and how much water can be stored in Lake Mendocino throughout the year.

Huffman last month introduced House of Representatives Bill 3988, called the Fixing Operations of Reservoirs to Encompass Climatic and Atmospheric Science Trends Act, which would let local sponsors of any of the Corps’ reservoir projects throughout the nation ask the Corps to find better ways to operate the reservoir in question. The bill would require the Corps to respond and give it three years to do a study.

The ACOE runs the Coyote Valley Dam during flood control season (November through April) using a formula and graph drawn in 1959. Local officials, including the Board of Supervisors, say that doesn’t allow Lake Mendocino to store enough water to ensure a steady supply the rest of the year, because the Corps uses that decades-old rule curve to instead release over the dam and down the Russian River any water in the lake that rises above a set flood control limit.

via Mendocino County seeking changes at Coyote Dam – Ukiah Daily Journal.