By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg on Tuesday became the first city in Sonoma County to enact mandatory water conservation measures as a result of a stubborn drought that shows no sign of easing.
The City Council unanimously declared a water shortage emergency intended to cut use by 20 percent, something voluntary measures in effect since June had failed to achieve.
“It’s a regional problem. But it’s important for us not to just think about ourselves,” Mayor Jim Wood said. “I hope other cities will follow suit.”
Long-term weather predictions don’t offer much hope. Models predict drought will persist or intensify in California and the Pacific Northwest through the end of April, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“We may get a shower or two,” Healdsburg resident Gail Jonas told the City Council, citing the dire long-term forecast. “It won’t trump the longer outlook. We’re in for a real severe water shortage.”
“It’s time to start. We’re ahead of the curve,” Councilman Gary Plass said, adding that water conservation will likely be a fact of life.
“I think it’s for longer. If we get 10 inches of rain, I won’t say we’re out of the woods,” he said.
The mandatory conservation measures, or Stage 2, approved Tuesday, are similar to water use guidelines in Stage 1, but require strict compliance. They take effect immediately.
Residents and businesses can only irrigate outdoors during evening and early morning hours, only every other day, and not on Mondays.
And City Council members said it also means residents can’t wash their cars in the driveway or street, even with a shut-off hose. But they can take their vehicles to a car wash that recycles.
There are two car washes in Healdsburg, and city Utility Director Terry Crowley said they both have the ability to recycle.
Nonresidential, or commercial customers will have to cut their water use to 80 percent of what they used the past year. But Crowley said businesses that already have changed their landscape to conserve may be provided some leeway if asking them to cut water use further is not reasonable.
While excessive water users face potential fines and their service can be curtailed, city officials say they want to help customers reduce consumption, not punish anyone.
“That’s not our intent. The intent is to educate,” Mayor Wood said.
The majority of Healdsburg’s municipal wells rely on water from the Russian River. With upstream releases from Lake Mendocino drastically curtailed, city officials want to ensure the wells don’t go dry.
Healdsburg also has some wells that draw from Dry Creek, which is fed by much larger Lake Sonoma, the source of water for about 600,000 users in Sonoma County and parts of Marin.
But water regulators only allow Healdsburg to use those wells between May through October.
The river this week was flowing near Healdsburg at 37 cubic feet per second, a small fraction of the historical median at this time of year, Utility Director Crowley said.
Jonas told the City Council that Russian Riverkeeper, an environmental group that monitors the river, is concerned it could dry up without at least 15 inches of rain this winter — which is around half of the annual precipitation Santa Rosa gets in a normal year.
Healdsburg resident Robert Neuse said the drought may be part of a long-term pattern in California that experts have perceived in the geologic record, where it’s normal to go through long-term extreme droughts lasting from five to 20 years.
“It will be further exacerbated by global warming,” he said. “We have to think long term.”
After the Healdsburg Council enacted Stage 1 water conservation last summer in an attempt to get households and businesses to voluntarily cut back by 20 percent, usage initially decreased. But then it went back up.
In July, overall water use in the city was down 15 percent compared to the year before. In August, it was down by 10 percent. But in September and October, use went up 1 percent over 2012. And in November, it was up 15 percent from the year before.
“We’re not at the worst step yet,” Crowley said in reference to more draconian steps in Stage 3 that can be enacted, including water rationing. “We’re just asking for conservation that’s a little more meaningful than the first phase.”
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com.