The Great Droughts

Are there lessons to be drawn from Sonoma County’s past?

Amid record water shortfalls and unreliable rains, fear grows that Mother Nature is stealing the California dream. Are there lessons to be drawn from Sonoma’s past? (photos by Kent Porter)

It rained and it rained and it rained. And then, after three of the wettest seasons in memory, the heavens went dry.

That eerie, rainless December of 1975 began the widespread sense of unease. The grass browned and ranchers resorted to trucking in water for their livestock, an expedient usually reserved only for the driest depths of summer.

And now it has happened again. With less than 9 inches of rain, 2013 went down as the driest year ever recorded in Sonoma County. It was the same in the rest of California.

Neither the fool’s euphoria of balmy January days nor the gleeful relief at seeing rain arrive at last, late and inadequate, could soothe the growing fear that a historic water shortage could again bring catastrophe.

Dirt from a field, nearly fallow, easily separates in a coastal breeze at the Sonoma, Marin county line. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Dirt from a field, nearly fallow, easily separates in a coastal breeze at the Sonoma, Marin county line.

Your father’s drought

Fear is what J. Dietrich Stroeh remembers from the drought of 1976-77; he was the general manager of the Marin Municipal Water District through that bleak time. It is one thing to be unsettled by winter hills that are parched to tan when they should be brilliant green. It is another entirely to fear that thousands of people will have no water to drink.

“There were many nights I drove from the office to home, and it would be quite late, and I felt fear,” recalled Stroeh. “For the first time in my life I felt fear. I was looking for water and I didn’t know where I was going to get it.”

The 24-month drought cost the state more than $2.6 billion in losses, even by the most conservative estimates. It devastated California’s livestock industry, which suffered nearly $900 million in losses. Tourism declined as lakes dwindled, campground wells went dry, and fires scorched the landscape. Up to 8 million trees died in those two years, some from lack of water, some from fire, and the rest from pests that flourished in the unseasonably warm, dry winters.

By March of 1976, officials were publicly warning residents to prepare for water rationing by summer. By June, Petaluma was limiting landscape watering to every other day — on even days east of Highway 101, odd days to the west. During the next year, municipalities banned outside watering entirely and moved to ration indoor water use.

Eventually, National Guard troops were assigned to run a seven-day-a-week water trucking operation to rural farms and homes in Sonoma County. Local officials commandeered Caltrans tankers to help.

In December 1976, a newspaper writer observed that folks were “beginning to wonder if it would ever rain again.” And that was only halfway through what would become the most desperate drought the area had known in its modern history.

Rainfall in 2012 and 2013 was well less than those two withering years in the mid-1970s, and 2014 started even worse, promising a third critically dry year. Water managers spent this past winter dusting off the playbooks written decades ago by Stroeh and his colleagues, and casting nervous eyes at the dwindling supplies in area reservoirs.

As with the 1970s, there was something haunting and increasingly apocalyptic through the fall and winter of 2013: Every day became as sunny, mild and dry as anything we could wish of summer. As this January closed with barely a sprinkle all month — drier even than the arid January of 2013 — a kind of fatalism began to creep into the discussion.

“This is worse. … This is going to hurt us for sure,” said third-generation Sonoma rancher Ray Mulas, who remembers his father struggling to feed the cattle during the 1976-77 dry spell. Without rain to grow alfalfa and grass, he’s begun to wonder “if we’re going to be here in June.”

For the first time, he said, he’s considering what would happen to his 500-acre dairy ranch, in the family for eight decades, if he had to sell off the herd.

“You have to be prepared for everything,” he said as January came to a parched conclusion. “You’d be a fool if you didn’t think about these things. You have to have that exit strategy in place.”

By some measures, the North Coast is much better off today than were its frightened and thirsty residents of the 1970s. The booming population centers — Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Marin — can now access water from Lake Sonoma, which opened in 1982 and was designed to hold a three-year supply. As well, homes are far more efficient than they used to be, with water-saving appliances and fixtures that have cut home consumption dramatically.

But those measures can’t protect from truly epic droughts, today’s water managers warn.

“You can never eliminate risk,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency, who was in high school when the 1970s drought swept the state. “The public, I don’t think, likes that message. It’s not a fun message. It’s an important message and an honest one, too.”

It’s difficult to overstate just how close the region came to catastrophe before the rains began again at the end of December 1977, leading to a string of wetter years starting in 1978.

By the end of that drought, the flow in the Russian River dropped to just 6 percent of its average. The six reservoirs that supplied the North Coast then had fallen to 15 percent of their average capacity to supply every city between San Pablo Bay and the Oregon border.

The drought “has again shown the finite nature of our resources and our limited ability to control nature,” wrote Ronald B. Robie, former director of the state Department of Water Resources, in the grim final report on the drought, issued in 1978.

The bones of a fish lie exposed on the dry lakebed at Lake Mendocino. By early February, the lake had shurunk to a depth of just 68.9 feet, barely more than half its maximum level. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
The bones of a fish lie exposed on the dry lakebed at Lake Mendocino. By early February, the lake had shrunk to a depth of just 68.9 feet, barely more than half its maximum level.

“There is no assurance that the next drought is not just beyond the horizon,” he wrote prophetically. “We can be assured, however, that drought will return and, considering the greater needs of that future time, its impact, if not prepared for, will be much greater.”

The memories are still vivid of the every-day effects of that long-ago drought. Cars collected thick coats of dirt. Dust clouds rose from the ground in February. Sparse grass on area fields and hills went from the golden of dry summer to a dead brown.

“It became a badge of who cared, who had brown lawns,” recalled Leon Sharyon, who was a teenager in Modesto at the time and now watches warily from his perch as chief financial officer of Lagunitas Brewing Co. in Petaluma, as cities contemplate mandatory water cuts on water-intensive businesses such as his.

“It’s a nerve-wracking time,” he admitted of this new drought. Any serious rationing plan would force the beer company, and any other water-heavy food or beverage manufacturer, to make difficult decisions about where to cut, and ultimately could force costly production shortfalls.

Back in the 1970s, the media was full of slogans and helpful advice, including the infamous motto explaining when to flush the toilet: “When it’s brown, flush it down; when it’s yellow, let it mellow.”

Newspapers were full of charts detailing how simple changes in behavior could save tremendous amounts of water: brushing your teeth with the tap running could use 3 gallons; “wet brush, rinse briefly” would use just one-quarter of a gallon.

One piece of advice sticks in the mind of longtime Press Democrat columnist and local historian Gaye LeBaron: Turn the shower on only long enough to wet your body. Turn it off, lather up, then turn it back on only as long as it takes to rinse off. Water managers touted that as a way to save 24 gallons in even a brief shower.

LeBaron’s verdict on the short-form showers? “A most unpleasant experience.”

The drought forced communities throughout the area to the edge of disaster. With reservoirs near empty, communities including Santa Rosa and Calistoga banned outdoor use of water.

The Marin Municipal Water District concocted a fantastic scheme to run a pipe from the East Bay across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, a plan that is credited with saving 170,000 customers from going completely dry in the summer of 1977.

Once rains did come back, the public moved on. But farmers and water managers remembered.

Cities all over the area kept their mandatory conservation plans on the books, developed programs to help homeowners install water-efficient fixtures and appliances, and offered incentives to rip out water-guzzling grass lawns. Vineyard owners kept the new water-conserving drip irrigation systems, installed on the fly as a last-ditch effort to save the premium crops in Napa and Sonoma counties through the drought.

The system of rationing improvised by Stroeh in Marin County in the 1970s has become an industry standard. Rather than threatening to cut off water or arrest scofflaws, his agency created a system of ever-increasing emergency rates. The more you exceed your allocation, the more you pay the next month, until the economic pain becomes unbearable.

“It all worked out, and worked out well,” he said. “People liked that.”

"I drove my ranch today, and it is a disaster." - Two Rock dairyman Don De Bernardi, whose shrinking irrigation pond should be filing with winter rain.
“I drove my ranch today, and it is a disaster.” – Two Rock dairyman Don De Bernardi, whose shrinking irrigation pond should be filing with winter rain.

How we live today

So here we are again. Even with the February rains, the drought remains a painful reality.

“This whole thing we’re going through right now is pretty serious stuff,” Stroeh said.

It’s so serious that state officials warned in January that at least 17 communities were in imminent danger of running out of water completely. Of those, three were North Coast cities: Willits, Cloverdale and Healdsburg. The governor declared a drought emergency and cities scrambled to implement conservation, at first voluntary but with the strong threat of mandatory rationing by spring.

By the end of 2013, farmers were begging county officials for help with trucking in water; the supervisors were considering reviving the emergency trucking operations that took to the road daily in 1977. Ranchers began culling their herds to save on the soaring cost of feed, starting first with calves and moving to older cows.

“I drove my ranch today and it is a disaster,” said Two Rock dairyman Don De Bernardi after a predicted rainstorm in late January fizzled, delivering just one one-hundredth of an inch of moisture. “The crops are dying,” which will force him onto the crowded and expensive market for hay and feed grown elsewhere.

Other sorts of farmers are no better off. Norm Yenni, a multigeneration grain farmer in Sonoma, said he fears a total loss on his unirrigated 2,300 acres if the rains don’t return for good.

Yenni called the February rains a fine start but said the future remains uncertain.

“We’re into territory I’ve never been in before — I don’t think anyone else has,” he said.

Grapegrowers, meanwhile, worried that the dry conditions could make their vines more vulnerable to frost damage. The warm, dry weather was fooling the vines into pushing out their delicate buds as early as January, leaving them vulnerable to devastating frost damage for the rest of the winter. Even more than for irrigation, vineyards rely on water for frost protection, so the early budding with limited water supply spelled sleepless nights for vineyard managers.

The drought could also depress vineyard yields. In the 1976-77 drought, grape crop weights dropped noticeably, particularly in the premium wine-growing areas along the coast, according to the state’s final report on the drought.

As January 2014 closed drier than ever, grapegrowers began making worst-case plans, right up to abandoning the entire 2014 crop.

With no water for irrigation, vineyard managers said, the best strategy would be to trim the vines entirely and let them rest through the drought.

“We’re going to have to save the vines for next year,” said J. Alex Vyborny, owner of Vyborny Vineyard Management, which manages 1,000 acres in Napa and Sonoma counties. “That means cutting fruit, cutting canes.”

If 2014 is dry, he said, “we’re going to be in trouble.”

When David Martin of San Francisco went kayaking on Lake Sonoma in January, the water level has fallen so low he couldn't launch from the boat ramp. Instead, he had to portage through several yards of gooey mud to get his craft to and from the lake.
When David Martin of San Francisco went kayaking on Lake Sonoma in January, the water level has fallen so low he couldn’t launch from the boat ramp. Instead, he had to portage through several yards of gooey mud to get his craft to and from the lake.

Not your father’s drought

The only thing that’s clear about the future is that Ronald Robie’s 1978 words are true: Some day, ferocious drought will return.

Even were it not for the threat of climate change, serious dry spells are inevitable every few decades. With California’s population at 38 million and climbing by about 1 percent a year, the pressure on the state’s water resources will get progressively worse.

With climate change, all bets are off. And the best computer models disagree: Northern California will get drier; Northern California will get wetter. One thing they do agree on is that the extremes will become more so — drier dry periods and wetter wets. And that means more dangerously dry periods are ahead for Sonoma County no matter what else the future holds.

Six decades ago, former Press Democrat reporter Frank Herbert dreamed of the desert world of Arrakis, where the mere possession of water was a mark of wealth and power, and common people struggled to conserve and reuse every last drop they could collect just to survive. The story, possibly inspired in part by the dunes of Bodega Bay and the North Coast, went on to become the best-selling science-fiction classic “Dune.”

But that vision is not as much fantasy as we might like. Water managers today joke nervously about the day when customers wear “stillsuits,” the full-body suits imagined by Herbert that Arrakis residents wore to capture and recycle moisture, including sweat and waste.

Stillsuits may not be in our future, but the kind of intensive recycling it suggests is not far off the mark. There may come a day when California residents will become accustomed to the idea that the water they send down the drain, or flush down the toilet, comes back to them in the form of treated drinking water.

Already, desert cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas are working on plans to pump the wastewater from sewage treatment plants back into their reservoirs.

“Water is water. All the water we have has been recycled millions of times,” said David Guhin, director of utilities for the City of Santa Rosa. “There is only so much water in the world.”

Stroeh, now a consultant who works for water agencies all over the region, including Sonoma County, sees a somewhat different future: a string of desalinization plants up and down the West Coast, undertaking the fantastically expensive process of converting sea water to tap water.

And even with these plants, he said, California residents in the second half of the century can expect to be on a permanent rationing system modeled on his plan from the 1970s: daily limits enforced by a progressively steeper cost for excessive use.

The engineers at the Sonoma County Water Agency are somewhat more optimistic, at least about the local picture. Sonoma County, they said, is unusual in that it has a robust river system that, at least in most years, gets fed plenty of water if it’s added up throughout the year. The problem is that it typically is available at the wrong times: We need it in the summer but get it in the winter.

“We don’t have a shortage of water. We have a timing issue,” Jasperse said, as much of the annual winter rainfall becomes runoff into the Pacific Ocean. “And the game there is to try to play with that and make it more to our advantage. We need all the water when it is not happening.”

The chances that anyone will pay for yet another reservoir to hold all that wintertime water is near zero, so water agencies and cities are left to look at smaller-scale solutions.

One of the best is simply to reuse wastewater. Sonoma County Water Agency general manager Grant Davis said there are plenty of ways to reuse treated wastewater, short of pumping it straight back into the tap. Waste treatment plants are looking for ways to get farms, parks and golf courses to use wastewater for irrigation, thus taking pressure off precious and dwindling groundwater supplies.

Other options include capturing the extra water from the winter and storing it for the summer. The Water Agency is experimenting with using detention ponds, which would allow flood waters to soak into the ground slowly rather than just rushing off to the ocean. It is also beginning a pilot study of drilling wells that would allow winter water to be pumped into the ground and saved for use during peak summer periods.

Even if the agency can capture just a fraction of the water that normally runs off to the ocean in wet winters, engineers said, it would make a big difference during peak summer usage periods.

But the agency is also thinking bigger. It’s taking part in a series of national studies of weather forecasting and hydrology that could revolutionize how water is managed in the arid West.

In the most high-profile project, Sonoma County is home to the first in a series of West Coast weather stations that will help meteorologists understand a phenomenon known as “atmospheric rivers,” the huge weather systems that are responsible for most of the wet weather the area gets in the winter. Much of the early research on these systems was conducted in Sonoma County in the 1990s. The area will remain a key center of research in the future, in part because the Russian River is among the most flood-prone watersheds in the country, making it a great laboratory for weather researchers.

Understanding how the atmospheric rivers form off the coast of Asia and Africa, how they build across the Pacific and where they hit along the West Coast could give water managers vital advance warnings of flood and droughts alike, telling them when to hoard water behind dams and when to let it flow out to the ocean, the Water Agency said.

“This region is taking an innovative approach,” Davis said. “You entertain these sorts of short-term, midterm and long-term solutions. … I think we are going to contribute to water management throughout the state.”

Drought and memory

Until the rains return, it is impossible to know how the drought of the 2010s might be remembered. But looking back on contemporary accounts of the drought in the 1970s, an intriguing pattern emerges. When the rains stopped in 1975, there was a sense of foreboding. Later, as a series of small rains teased the North Coast, pundits confidently predicted an end to the drought even as the sprinkles failed to fill the reservoirs. As the drought dragged through its second year, a sense of fatalism crept in, with every rainstorm greeted with the grim resignation that it would amount to nothing.

Finally, when the heavy rains began to lash the coast after two bitter years, it was as if the writers of the day simply couldn’t believe that the long ordeal was over. It took a series of destructive floods before they were willing to admit that the worst was behind them.

And then, in the spring of 1978, everything returned to normal: Lawns were green, cars were washed, and everyone went back to enjoying the sublime California weather.

Or almost everyone.

Stroeh said the public, and sometimes even water engineers, tend to be optimists. They assume the best, and once the rains come, they figure it will continue. The searing drought of the 1970s cured Stroeh of his optimistic streak.

“This drought made a believer out of me,” he said. “This will happen again.”