Janet Pauli is manager and co-owner of the Pauli Ranch in Potter Valley, California. She also chairs the Mendocino County Inland Water and Power Commission—an organization “dedicated to protecting the water supply for Mendocino County families, fish, and farms.” Along with Redwood Valley to its west, Potter Valley is the northernmost source of the Russian River; most of the flow in its upper watershed, however, is the result of diversions from the nearby Eel River, which was dammed in 1908 and again in 1922 to produce hydroelectricity. That water reaches the East Fork of the Russian River through a tunnel and powerhouse—the so-called Potter Valley Project. What isn’t subsequently used by the valley’s irrigation district flows into Lake Mendocino, created by Coyote Dam in 1959. Water released downstream from Lake Mendocino supplies the farms, vineyards, and cities of Ukiah, Hopland, Cloverdale, Geyserville, and Healdsburg, as well as in Alexander Valley—a total human population of 600,000. Below its confluence with Dry Creek, west of Windsor, most of the water in the Russian River comes from Lake Sonoma, established by Warm Springs Dam in 1982.
A hundred years ago, before water diversions from the Eel, Potter Valley was dry farmed. Its main commodities were cattle and row crops. Today’s vineyards and orchards are enabled by irrigation from the Potter Valley Project, which since the 1930s has been operated by Pacific Gas and Electric. In 2019, however, the company announced its intention to abandon the project, citing its unprofitability. A “Two-Basin Partnership” consisting of five interest groups—the Mendocino County Inland Water & Power Commission, the Sonoma County Water Agency, Humboldt County, the Round Valley Indian Tribe, and California Trout—has since proposed to take over the license, with a dual aim of ensuring a reliable water supply in the Russian River and restoring habitat on the Eel. Its proposed studies include razing Scott Dam on the latter and raising Coyote Dam on the former. Meanwhile, in response to the current two-year drought, in May, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approved PG&E’s application to reduce flows from the Eel River into Lake Mendocino by nearly 80 percent.
In addition to her other duties, Pauli (who has a PhD in zoology) has served on the board of the Potter Valley Irrigation District since 1988. We talked to her about the drought and its effect on her ranch and vineyards, which grow chardonnay, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, merlot, cabernet sauvignon and riesling. —David Darlington
The interview has been edited and condensed.
We had 13 inches of rain over the past winter; the normal amount is 45. We have several different water-supply sources, depending on where our vineyards are located. They run the gamut from riparian rights to appropriative rights to the Potter Valley Irrigation District to a contract with Russian River Flood Control to treated wastewater from Ukiah. All of them except the wastewater have been curtailed in one way or another, due to the drought.
If you own property in California along a natural watercourse, you can claim riparian rights. That allows you to take a certain amount out of a stream or body of water, as long as you’re not impacting people downstream past a certain point. That water is only available when it’s there naturally. Normally, in June or July when natural flows cease, if you’re lucky you have access to water being released from a storage project [i.e., reservoir] into a creek or river. The only way to take that legally is if you’ve applied [to the State Water Resources Control Board] for ‘appropriative’ rights. That system, which is very complicated, started immediately after statehood.
If you have an appropriative right, you’re pretty secure—except in times like this. There have now been blanket notices of unavailability in the upper Russian River for any appropriative rights applied for after 1914 [when permits began to be required], so all of our appropriative rights have been curtailed. All the creeks have dried up anyway, which also eliminated riparian rights. The amount of water available to us from the Potter Valley Project has been cut by 75 percent, and our contract with Russian River Flood Control below Lake Mendocino was cut in half. So now we’re down to about 25 percent of our normally available water supply, and when it’s used up, we don’t get any more—period. Even riparian rights and pre-1914 appropriative rights will most likely be curtailed—that’s how severe this drought is.
For this to happen is pretty unprecedented. It’s not arbitrary; we weren’t the only ones—there just isn’t any water. In the vineyard, it’s meant changing our cultural practices. We’ve been cultivating since March, eliminating cover crop we normally would have mowed and left, in order to get rid of competition with the vines and seal moisture in the soil. Right now, our Potter Valley vineyards are looking pretty good—so far, we’re not seeing a lot of stress in the vines. Most of them have nice loamy soils that will retain water, so we’re eking out the irrigation, understanding that we have a very limited supply of water to use for the rest of the season. We’ve had to extend the timing between irrigations, but if we can continue to have enough to drip on an extended schedule, I think we’ll get to veraison and far enough down the road to ripen the fruit.
Some of our vineyards are in better shape than other communities’. Redwood Valley gets its water from Lake Mendocino, which is lower at this point in time than ever in its history. It dropped so precipitously that all agricultural [water] deliveries were completely curtailed as of April 1. Redwood Valley is in an emergency situation, so now they’re trying to dry farm. But you can’t just flip a switch and go back to effective dry farming overnight—you can’t wean vines [off irrigation] in one year. It might mean changing rootstocks as time goes on; we’re not there yet, but if we knew we would be for the next five or ten years, everything would change. People used to grow grapes with the understanding that there wasn’t going to be any [water], so they pruned differently—they didn’t have big heavy canopies, or put on large crops. Two buds per spur at most, and six or eight spurs per vine. They managed the canopy and cultivated the heck out of the soil—disc, chisel, disc again, and roll. You’re saving all the water in the soil just for the vines.
This heat is not helping at all. Last Saturday it was 112, and for it to be over 100, day after day, in June and July, is unusual. It’s more the type of weather we see in August and early September, when we normally get higher temperatures and humidities. I’m not sure that humidity hurts much of what we’re doing; it’s just uncomfortable for humans. There are some fungal issues, but there’s less evapotranspiration, and it dampens the fire danger. In the recent past, when we’ve had horrible fires, the wind was from the east, with extremely low humidity. When a fire starts, it explodes. With higher or moderate humidity, you don’t have the ignition potential that you have when it’s dry. But it’s not perfect—things will still burn, and there’s a lot of dry fuel. The day before yesterday, we had a fire in Redwood Valley that burned a home and threatened 80 or so others, and it was driven by late-afternoon westerly winds from the coast. The firefighters got on it quickly, but it could have been much, much worse. We’ve been threatened several times—by the Ranch Fire the year before last, and in 2017 on a big ranch between Potter Valley and Redwood Valley, where we lost a couple of homes and outbuildings and a significant amount of timberland. The roads were closed, we had no power, and nobody knew if we were okay. It was amazing and horrifying.
Two unusually dry winters in a row is a real stressor—an unusual situation that I hope we don’t see again any time soon. If we go into next year with less water supply than we have now, and it’s not recouped, I’m not sure how we can manage the infrastructure so as to survive another year like this. We don’t have reservoirs that were built for carryover storage. Lake Pillsbury [behind Scott Dam] is the head of this manmade system, but it doesn’t have carryover storage capacity—it’s a one-year water supply built to produce power. Lake Mendocino was built for flood control—it wasn’t originally important for water supply. It became that, but it won’t sustain two years of drought. So we need to be prepared, and have a better system of managing the supply. During a drought, everybody talks about it, but then when it rains again, we don’t do anything. Before this, people talked about the drought of ’76 and ’77—they thought it was an anomaly: “That happened back then.” But now we’re the new lucky owners of the drought of record. The only thing good about it is that people have been forced to understand how vulnerable they are to a limited water supply. Whether you have a vineyard or a backyard garden or a home or a business, it crosses all aspects of life and of the economy. People don’t even think about it—they turn the tap on and off and go to sleep. But water is the most important thing we have to unite around and protect. At the heart of it is our quality of life.
W&S's James Beard Award—winning special correspondent David Darlington is the author of five books, among them An Ideal Wine and Angels' Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel (later retitled Zin).
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