Watch CBS News

CA Drought: Water Regulators Investigating Illegal Siphoning Of Russian River

UKIAH (KPIX) - As farms and communities along the Russian River feel the brunt of the worsening drought, state regulators suspect that some people have been siphoning off water illegally.

It's a long walk from the water's edge to what used to be the boat ramp. Lake Mendocino, the main water supply to farms and cities from Ukiah down to Healdsburg, is on track to break the record for its lowest level, set during the drought of 1977.

Don Seymour, principal engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency says there is no guarantee the drought won't continue next year.

"If that was to be what we saw in 2022, Lake Mendocino could go dry," he said. "I mean, it's not an impossible thing, it's a potential."

So in July, state regulators ordered a halt to taking water from or near the Upper Russian River for 1,600 water rights holders, and last week, added another 300 more, including the small town of Occidental, west of Santa Rosa.

"The water shortage is the only topic of conversation on anyone's minds right now," said resident Nathan Bender. "It's, 'Hey, how ya doing? How's your water supply?' That kind of thing."

The town can get a exemption to draw enough water for human health and safety, about 55 gallons per person per day. But there may be less water available to do that. It seems that some of the water released is not getting all the way down to Healdsburg, and state regulators think some people up river might be cheating.

"There's probably still some surface water diversions going on that shouldn't be," said Seymour, "based on looking at the stream-flow gauges along the Russian River."

The state has sent field agents to investigate the water losses but Seymour thinks much of it could be the result of what's happening underground. He says so much water is being pumped from wells that it's actually affecting the level of the river itself.

"That groundwater table starts to drop, and when it drops below the surface of the river, the river starts losing water to that groundwater system," said Seymour. "And that becomes a loss that no one can control."

The State Water Resources Control Board is the agency investigating the water losses and they're asking people to report any illegal water diversions they may be aware of. Seymour says the message may be getting through, because in the last 8 days the river level has risen a bit, allowing them to slow releases from Lake Mendocino, but they will need to decrease those outflows even more and hope for a rainy winter to keep the reservoir from totally drying up.

"It's scary to me that it's even a possibility," said Seymour, "because you're talking about no water available for 60-70,000 people who depend on the Russian River for their water supply."

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.