Rep. Huffman promises he’s pushing for changes at Lake Mendocino
After years of drought, Mendocino County is finally getting its fair share (and then some) of rainfall this winter.
And since so much water is falling from the sky, many in the Ukiah Valley are wondering when, if ever, more of it might be stored in Lake Mendocino?
The reservoir is owned by the Sonoma County Water Agency, and for most of the past few years that agency has been in charge of the water releases, given that the water level was so low. But now that the water level is above the storage pool and into the “flood control pool,” the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the Coyote Valley Dam, decides when and how much water will be released.
Typically, the Corps deems the water supply pool full at 68,400 acre-feet (each acre foot is just shy of 386,000 gallons), but in December, the SCWA requested that it allow 74,225 acre-feet be stored.
During a recent visit to Ukiah, Rep. Jared Huffman (D – San Rafael), said he appreciated that the Corps has granted requests for more storage the last couple of years, but said he hopes to permanently update the science the Corps relies on to determine water releases, which currently is a Water Control Manual created in 1959.
“Instead of looking down at a binder of backward-looking hydrology, we want them to look up, at the satellites we have that can tell us when the atmospheric rivers are coming our way,” said Huffman, who has introduced and recently updated HR5595, the Reservoir Operations Improvement Act, addressing the crowd gathered at a recent Town Hall meeting in Ukiah with state Assemblyman Jim Wood.
If the bill, which has yet to pass the House of Representatives, becomes law, Huffman said it will require the Corps to incorporate updated forecasting science “into their ongoing decisions, rather than on a temporary, storm-to-storm basis.
“We’re not quite there yet, but we’re making some headway,” Huffman continued. “We’ve definitely gotten this issue onto the radar, and I think it’s just a manner of time before we get the operations of dams like Lake Mendocino modernized so we don’t waste water.”
Data relevant to the operations of Lake Mendocino was collected in Ukiah last March for a scientific study called Forecast-Informed Reservoir Operations, or FIRO, which came largely out of a partnership between the Scripps Research Institute and the SCWA.
The group hopes that the forecasting model they are creating can eventually be used by the Corps, and Lake Mendocino was chosen as the pilot project for the forecasting model they are perfecting at an Atmospheric River Observatory in Bodega Bay.
Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the SCWA, said at the time that the group is focusing on atmospheric rivers because they are the events that fill reservoirs. If you get them, Jasperse said, you’re likely to get flooding, and the flooding such events can create has definitely been apparent so far this winter.
Another lingering question related to Lake Mendocino that Huffman addressed at the meeting last month was the possibility of raising the dam to allow more water to be stored at the facility.
“Just know that it is a huge priority, but that it has been a hard project to pencil out in the past,” Huffman said, explaining that if the Corps continues to view the facility’s main purpose as protecting the surrounding area from floods rather than as a water-storage facility, it will be difficult to convince it to spend the money needed to raise the dam.
“Ordinarily, when the Corps looks at surface storage projects, it can only consider the economic benefit of flood protection, but we want them to consider what a vital water resources project Lake Mendocino is,” said Huffman, adding that “in the last cost-benefit analysis (of raising the dam) we were able to get them to incorporate some of those (water storage) benefits, and hopefully that makes raising this dam look good economically.”
Because not only do “agricultural communities up and down the Russian River” depend on the water released from Lake Mendocino, but Huffman said the quality of that water is crucial to the wildlife dependent on the river.
“Because of the way the release valve has been constructed, we get muddy water released from Lake Mendocino,” said Huffman. “We think if we raise the dam, we can also put in a new release valve” that will lead to clearer water being released.