UKIAH 1/5/2017 — Though Ukiah is nestled by a lake and a river, that actual water rights are always up for discussion. At last night’s Ukiah city council meeting, former council member Phil Baldwin, speaking as a private citizen, thanked the council for scheduling a public informational workshop on water rights and related matters. The council agreed to postpone a decision as to whether the city will buy or decline to buy 800 acre feet of water from the Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District (RRFC). Water districts in the Upper Russian River basin, including Ukiah, contract with the RRFC for access to water in Lake Mendocino.
The council also discussed a new app called “My Ukiah,” which people in the city can use to report non-emergency deficiencies, like potholes, broken streetlights, or instances of vandalism. Councilmembers Kevin Doble and Maureen Mulheren have already downloaded the app. The council also voted to bring members’ compensation back to $490 per month. This prompted Councilmember Steve Scalmanini to ask wryly if this meant the public was getting its money’s worth.
Ukiah pays $37,600 per year for 800 acre feet[footnote]For anyone not familiar with the unit an acre foot is the amount of water it takes to cover an acre, one foot high. For agricultural use, and by extension for most large amounts of water in the West, this is a convenient unit.[/footnote] of water from the RRFC. The city is currently required to purchase the water every year to keep the contract alive. On Wednesday night, Sean White, director of water and sewer for the City of Ukiah and the former general manager of RRFC, recommended that the city decline to renew the contract. He told the council that the city has a very good water supply, with access to additional groundwater and the rehabilitation of wells four and nine almost finished.
He also expressed an interest in allowing RRFC to make the water available to other districts, especially Redwood Valley. If the city declines the contract, White said, the decision could “help our water rights out, save money, and help other municipalities that don’t have such a good water right situation.” A memo accompanying the agenda item states that “Declining the renewal will assist the City [sic] in perfecting its own appropriative water rights.” Perfecting water rights was an elusive term that the council and staff agreed to define at the workshop, which is tentatively scheduled for the end of March.
Councilmember Doug Crane was the first to express hesitation to decline the water immediately, saying he thought the council should take the time “to more clearly discussing and understanding the implications of all of these water issues which are interrelated,” including the connection between river water and groundwater.
Councilmember Kevin Doble also brought up several items he wanted to know more about, including “why it’s important to perfect our existing water right” and “If we decide not to purchase this water, how it goes back into the system to help improve things,” including recycled water projects and compliance with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. “Is there time to have that conversation?” he asked White.
White replied that “I would be happy to have that conversation...I think in the past there was a lot concern that...the only way to perfect our rights was to develop things...which I know there is a significant public interest in not doing.”
Speaking as a private citizen during public comment, Phil Baldwin, a former Ukiah city council member, thanked the council for the delay. He said he considered the water from RRFC “A near birthright for the citizens of Ukiah,” and “an insurance policy” during critical dry years. He also referred to the urban water management plan as “basically hogwash” because “According to some 1965 study, we’ve got 125,000 acre feet in a lake under this valley that we can draw on forever.” However, he said, many experts argue that city wells draw from the river. “I will, of course, be at the workshop,” he concluded.
In other water news, several items regarding the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District are uncertain or have been postponed, including a joint meeting on the recycled water program, a joint budget, and a court date.
White reported that the joint budget between the city and the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District has still not been approved. He said the district has been experiencing “A little bit of disorganization with the absence of Frank” McMichael, the district manager, who is in poor health. He added that John Dickerson, the consultant who is working on the district’s end of the joint budget, is reviewing records going back to 2005, and “I don’t anticipate him having a multi-decade review ready for a joint meeting” on the recycled water project, for which no date has been set. He said the lack of a joint budget “Hampers the ability to get joint projects approved.” The city and the district share a sewer system, including the wastewater treatment plant.
Mediation to resolve a 2013 lawsuit the district filed against the city has not been successful. The city and the district were scheduled to go to court on December 29 for a case management conference to set a date for a trial, but that matter has been re-scheduled to come before Judge Peter Ottenweller on January 26, in Department 17 of the Sonoma County Superior Court.
Sarah Reith [email protected]