Lake Mendocino running dry

February 3, 2009 7:51:05 PM PST
In Mendocino County, there is a river where there should be a lake. Instead, Mendocino Reservoir is a caking mudflat. For North County residents facing water rationing, it is a vivid picture of the elephant in the room.

The waterline is 500 yards back from where it should usually be for this time of year and where the water does start, instead of being 40 feet deep, it is only five or six feet deep.

Sonoma County built the reservoir, and draws water from it. It is the low level that explains why the county projects 30-50 percent water cutbacks beginning next month.

"The fact is, it is never been this low, at this time of year, since this project was built," Sean White of the Russian River Flood Control District said. "It's the lowest February, ever."

For that reason, Tuesday, Sonoma County voted to give homeowners low interest, long term loans for conservation upgrades, including solar power, low flow toilets and tankless water heaters. Sonoma hopes to invest $30-40 million in the first six months. Homeowners will finance through property taxes.

"You do have to repay the loan, but the loan does not follow the property owner, the loan follows the property," Cordell Stillman of the Sonoma County Water Agency said.

But it is a bleaker picture in the Redwood Valley of Mendocino.

"We're in desperate straits," Don Butow said.

Four generations of Butow's family have grown grapes in the Redwood Valley. The reservoir is their main source, or non-source at this point, of water.

It is so dry there, that if a frost comes, Butow would not be able to pull water from the river to fight it.

"If we don't get a crop this year, this place is up for sale; I'm too little and too old," Butow said.