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Dreading another long drought

The screenplay to Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ is considered to be one of the greatest written of all times. Scandal? Run around? Double crossing? All focused around a drought in Los Angeles?

Polanski’s film centered around LA in 1937 when the city was growing fast and developers were seeking to expand into the San Fernando Valley. The very real water crisis was the most severe drought to date in California history and led to the California Water Project, which is responsible for LA’s drinking water and the irrigation that keeps the Central Valley crops watered year round.

But what happens 40 years later when another drought, just as damning strikes again? And, whether fictional or not, there’s no big-bad water company head honcho to blame?

“This is a big one,” said Barry Dugan, principal program specialist with Sonoma Water, the county’s main water agency and provider. “Our water reservoirs have never been lower.”

Both Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma are at their lowest levels due to three years of historic rain fall, with 2021 on track to be the third driest year on record. Ukiah is currently receiving less rain fall than it did during 1977, when 48/53 of California’s counties were in a drought emergency.

“It’s lower than 2013-2014, too” Dugan said. “It’s worrisome.”

Sonoma County Fire Chief Mark Heine is worried about the lack of moisture, too.

“We’re nine inches below normal right now,” Heine said. “Fifty-five percent of Sonoma County is in severe drought and it’s only spring.”

Sonoma Water continues to monitor the entire system, from Lake Mendocino, Lake Sonoma, the Russian River and all of its tributaries. Throughout the past two years, the water agency has seen the levels at Lake Mendocino drop significantly due to lack of rainfall.

“Both lakes are important to our system,” Dugan said. “Lake Mendocino affects how much is in the [Russian] River.”

If there isn’t much to release when levels in the Russian River are low, the environment and economy could be at risk.

The Russian River area, from Healdsburg through Jenner, depends on strong river flow throughout the summer months to bring in tourists. When flow is too low, algae or bacteria can grow in the Russian River. Issues like Blue Algae have been known to plague the Russian River; however these can usually be solved easily with flow correction.

“We will continue to monitor the situation while not officially calling it a drought,” Dugan said.

Sonoma Water will wait until the state declares a drought emergency before moving forward with any steps toward voluntary or mandatory conservation, but he suggested residents plan ahead.

“There was no March Miracle rain. Time is running out,” Dugan said.

Dugan said the easiest way to save water is to reduce outdoor use. Have irrigation turned off or on low and check for leaks. If you still have a lawn, consider a water-saving landscape.

“There are simple things, like using a broom to clean off your porch,” Dugan added. “Turn off your faucets when you brush your teeth. If it’s yellow, let it mellow. Shower with a friend!”

Check out other water saving tips here!

Heine said residents can work on their properties, too during the springtime and in the meantime, should maintain good situational awareness.

“If you hear of high heat warnings or Red Flag days, keep your head cool and know where everything is,” Heine said of go-bags and evacuation routes. “That way if you’re in a situation and need these things immediately, you have them.”

And, it allows the firefighters the time to have fight the fire.

Firefighters are working gearing up for a tough season. CalFire is staffing up and staffing earlier than usual. Air tankers and helicopters will be an extensive part of this season’s firefighting team.

“We get creative,” Heine said, adding that much of the firefighting done is by hand tools and dozers. It’s when things get out of hand and into urbanized areas when water is needed.

“We can get real proactive with fighting fire,” Heine said.

Here in Sonoma County, more Red Flag warnings are to be expected, which means local crews and departments will staff up as well.

“It’s costly, but we know it’s worth it,” Heine said.

His areas of concern for the 2021 season include the Russian River, east of Creighton Ridge, which is decades overdue for a burn. Heine also has his eye on the area along Calistoga Road and the area of Westside Road in Mark West Springs.

“The timber there is very receptive,” Heine said.

Local water saving resources

Publisher’s Note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the story line of “Chinatown.” While it was filmed in 1974, the story was set in 1937. Thanks to Simone Wilson from Rohnert Park for pointing that out. -- AW

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