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Northern California Is Working To Conserve Water To Have Some Left Over For Crops


Much of the West is in a severe drought, including large parts of California. That means painful water cutbacks for many farmers and towns. Ezra David Romero of member station KQED reports.


EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: The impact of the drought is brutally clear at Lake Mendocino, a few hours north of San Francisco. I meet Nick Malasavage, who operates this reservoir for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. We walk across dry, cracked earth to the middle of the lake.

NICK MALASAVAGE: In 2019, the water was about 40 feet over our heads.

ROMERO: He says the lake's been slowly drying for months.

MALASAVAGE: Our lake levels here at Lake Mendocino are the lowest they've ever been for this time of the year.

ROMERO: The Russian River watershed is a microcosm of California's climate challenges. The main difference - this watershed relies only on rain and not on the Sierra Nevada snowpack. In April, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency here, which is raising the threat of devastating wildfires.


GAVIN NEWSOM: What's different now is the climate-induced impacts of these droughts. And that's what we need to hit head-on. We need to deal with the underlying issues related to climate change.

ROMERO: Since then, the drought has deepened. A heat wave has been felt across the region, and water rationing is taking place in some communities along the river. Jay Jasperse is with Sonoma Water, which provides water to more than 600,000 people. His agency got permission to cut flows from reservoirs here in half. Standing on the riverbank, he says the goal is to save water in case of a third year of drought.

JAY JASPERSE: But if we don't watch it, and it's dry next year or the year after, it'll be extremely rough.

ROMERO: Water is so tight that as many as 2,400 ranchers, grape-growers and other rural residents won't be able to rely on the river this year. The water will be used instead for drinking, hospitals and for fighting fires. Elizabeth Salomone is the general manager for the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District.

ELIZABETH SALOMONE: Farmers call me and say, what do I do? You know, I've put tens of thousands of dollars into planting this new vineyard last year, and now I'm not going to have water to irrigate it?

ROMERO: The low flows from reservoirs also mean cities have to conserve. Some have to cut back as much as 40% of their water use. The largest city in the region, Santa Rosa, is mandating a 20% reduction.


VARINA RICHTER: Thank you for calling Dierk's Parkside Cafe.

ROMERO: Varina Richter is a server at Dierk's Parkside Cafe in Santa Rosa. Customers have to fill their own glasses using a water jug in the middle of the restaurant.

RICHTER: I have had a few people yell at me. One guy thought it was absolutely ridiculous that I could get him coffee and a mimosa but not a water.

ROMERO: To meet the 20% restriction, city workers like Jason Leef are paid overtime to catch water-wasters.

JASON LEEF: So you're kind of like a mall cop for water (laughter). Yeah, Paul Blart.

ROMERO: Leef drives street by street looking for oversaturated lawns and water running down roads.

LEEF: This morning, I found three locations that are just over irrigation so far.

ROMERO: For each, he fills out a warning ticket. The city then works with residents to fix leaks. If they refuse, the city has the option to cut off their water.

LEEF: We don't want to see that, so we're just trying to help this customer out because that's excessive.

ROMERO: Leef says preventing water waste is a big deal because a quarter-inch pipe can leak as much as 30 gallons a minute, and that's not an option when others would gladly use that water to grow food, wash clothes or to drink on a triple-digit day.

For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Santa Rosa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ezra David Romero is an award-winning radio reporter and producer. His stories have run on Morning Edition, Morning Edition Saturday, Morning Edition Sunday, All Things Considered, Here & Now, The Salt, Latino USA, KQED, KALW, Harvest Public Radio, etc.
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