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Commentary: A creative approach can help Russian River, farmers

Issue Date: May 18, 2022
By Frost Pauli
Frost Pauli
The state adopted curtailments for the Russian River to protect water levels in Lake Mendocino, pictured in October. Farmers are seeking solutions to sustain the environment and agriculture.
Photo/California Department of Water Resources

The Russian River, like most of California, is no stranger to low-water years. Now that 2022 is our third straight year of drought, necessity—as the saying goes—must be the mother of invention. With a reduced water supply, it has become obvious that there is the need for creative, forward-looking solutions.

On May 10, the California State Water Resources Control Board readopted an emergency regulation that stands to force 2,000 water-rights holders to curtail water diversions for another year. (See related story on Page 10.) The emergency action is being used to make water available to senior diverters, minimum instream flows and minimum health and human safety needs.

For farmers and ranchers in Mendocino County, the continuing drought means more sacrifices: fewer acres irrigated, herds reduced and farming output diminished. Yet there are alternatives to across-the-board water curtailments. This is a sustainable solution we are working toward through the upper Russian River water-sharing program.

In theory, the idea is simple. As an alternative to a full curtailment action being applied to a diverter, water-right holders in the upper watershed (north of Dry Creek in Sonoma County) can instead voluntarily sign up to participate in the program to receive some lower percentage of their typical reported water use.

This is a program we have been discussing with the State Water Resources Control Board in hopes of crafting an approach to apportion water to multiple uses while also sustaining our agricultural economy.

There are complexities to resolve on what the participation levels in a voluntary water-sharing program may be and what water supplies will ultimately be left to allocate. The supply question has mostly been answered using models the State Water Resources Control Board staff has analyzed for the water year.

A key unknown involves the water supply to be provided from the Potter Valley Project this summer if current diversion levels are further reduced. Reduced diversions into the East Fork Russian River equate to less flexibility to allocate an already limited supply in a voluntary program.

As the draft program language has evolved, a key effort has centered on honoring the water rights priority system. In calculating possible water allocation reductions for program participants, senior water-rights holders would see less of a reduction than more junior-rights holders.

Because the upper Russian River has an extensive mix of water rights (pre-1914, riparian, appropriative, licensed underflow wells, project water, etc.) for agricultural and municipal uses, participation in the program would require a mix of senior and junior water-right holders. Senior rights holders would be reduced less, but their reduction is what allows water to be shared, in some percentage, with more junior right holders.

The process of getting to the point of presenting a draft to the State Water Resources Control Board has taken months of work by a diverse group of stakeholders. Is it perfect? Probably not. However, if this program is successful in being implemented this year, we can build off the experience to improve the application in future low-water years.

As a farmer in Potter Valley and Ukiah Valley, I have looked at our water rights portfolio to determine how this water sharing program may be beneficial to our winegrape and pear operations over the summer months. Some locations have senior rights, some have junior rights, and some have access to alternative supplies such as recycled or irrigation district water.

I envision the program could provide us with increased flexibility to perhaps transition some water from our properties with senior rights to other locations that have more junior rights. There is language in the draft proposal that allows for this type of exchange, which may make the consideration of signing up more palatable for other farmers with similar situations.

The State Water Resources Control Board continues to have the backstop to implement full curtailments on program participants if water supply levels drop beyond certain levels or if there are not enough water-sharing participants.

The next step to move the water sharing program forward will be at the State Water Resources Control Board meeting on June 7, when the program will be discussed and hopefully approved by the board.

I am hopeful that the water sharing program can be applied this year. It will be a learning curve for sure. But it is an important opportunity to demonstrate that a locally driven option to curtailment can be successful for managing limited water supplies.

(Frost Pauli is a Mendocino County winegrape and pear grower and is chair of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau Water Committee. He may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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