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Forecast calls for drought

By Gretchen Giles

"That little bit of rain we got last week was nice," agrees Sonoma County Water Agency public information officer Brad Sherwood. "And it got the ground wet. But there was no runoff. It just watered the plants."

With first-of-year rain measurements a full 10 inches below where they were in 2008, the lowest they have been in a decade, the Sonoma County Water Agency has declared 2009 a "dry" year. And by dry, they mean sere, arid and desertlike. "We would need a good six inches to fall directly on top of the reservoir," Sherwood says with a muted chuckle, "and that's probably not going to happen."

The SCWA has the right to restrict the water supplies from Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma to its city patrons, including those in North Marin. The cities, for their turn, can ask citizens to demonstrably limit their usage. Sherwood predicts that SCWA may issue 30 to 50 percent mandatory rationing on city use perhaps as early as March. "But," he assures, "we may not see rationing until March or April"—spring months when we are usually literally awash with water.

With conservation restrictions fairly inevitable, SCWA has teamed up with the Sonoma County Transportation Agency to implement AB 811, signed into law by Gov. Schwarzenegger last year and designed to offer a stimulus package while greening both the earth and local government coffers. Beginning in the spring, the county will offer loans to those property owners who wish to install permanent water-saving solutions.

Called the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, this action will allow property owners to take 20-year loans from the county to install water conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements, such as tankless water heaters, ultra low-flush toilets, recirculating hot water pumps, smart irrigation controllers and solar panels. (Such accoutrements as "waterless" urinals are also on offer.) Because the loans will be tied to the property, not the property owner, and paid back in annual taxes, the loan balance will float with a sale, freeing the seller from further obligation.

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