Lake Mendocino 2019 and 2021

Save Water As If Your Life Depends On It

“Every drop counts.”
“Use water wisely.”
“There’s never enough to waste.”
“Our future in every drop.”
“Save water, rain or shine.”

Those of us in the water industry are always looking for new ways to ask our customers to save, conserve, and never waste water. And we do that for good reason. We live in a region prone to regular periods of drought, punctuated by sudden and catastrophic floods. Last year we had a very dry year, and this water year is off to a very dry start as well. Sonoma Water, which supplies drinking water to 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, relies on rainfall to fill our reservoirs and consecutive years of below-average rainfall are always cause for concern. Will this be a two-year dry spell, or the beginning of a multi-year drought?

Given the current conditions (as this is being written in January) there is a good chance you’ll be hearing from the Sonoma-Marin Water Saving Partnership this winter and again in the spring and summer about your water‑saving habits. It could also happen that by the time you read this we will have been drenched with a series of soaking storms and all the hand-wringing about a second dry year and low reservoirs will be a moot point. But what if it’s not?

This is the dilemma local water managers face on a regular basis. We live in a place prone to drought, sometimes long and painful droughts. We’ve experienced enough dry years to know that we can’t wait too long to sound the water-saving alarm.

Complicating the issue in the Russian River watershed are the threatened and endangered fish species, and the requirement to coordinate releases from our two reservoirs, Lake Mendocino and Lake Sonoma, to provide enough water for migrating salmon. It’s a complex equation that adds another layer of peril to the balancing act. Our water scientists are adept at navigating an array of requirements and demands, both political and regulatory, in order to balance the needs of many competing interests.

On a more positive note, a team of scientists from Sonoma Water, the Center for Western Weather and Water Extremes at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Geologic Survey, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources, have successfully proven the viability of a program that allows more winter rain to be stored at Lake Mendocino using advanced weather forecasting. The program, known as Forecast Informed Reservoir Operations (FIRO),balances the water supply and flood control purposes of the reservoir and is being considered by other water agencies in the state. FIRO holds great promise as a new tool for preserving our water supply while reducing flood risk.

The wild card in this discussion is climate change and the profound changes it is expected to have on our water cycle. Will it lead to longer droughts and more intense storms? Probably. Will we have warmer temperatures and increased pressure on water supplies? Probably. Will this mean that water will become even more precious and the need to save water and use it wisely even more critical? Certainly.

Our local water systems are complex and rife with uncertainty. One thing that we do know for certain, however, is that we cannot afford to waste water. Our lives really do depend on it. So, when we ask our customers to save water – no matter which words we use – we mean it.

For more information about using water wisely, visit

This article was authored by Barry Dugan, Senior Programs Specialist in the Community and Government Affairs Division at Sonoma Water, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.