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Healdsburg wants Toronto and New York to know its faucets are fine.

Martha Bridegam on
Mar 25, 2014

[This item has been updated with CDPH comment.]

Officials of Healdsburg and at least three smaller water districts have been trying to shed unwanted status as poster children for the California drought.

In a January 28 press release at, the Department of Public Health issued a list of 17 communities that it said were at risk for running out of drinking water. Since then, Healdsburg City Manager Marjie Pettus has been insisting she doesn't know why.

Pettus said, "We believe that perhaps an assumption was made because our City Council took proactive measures and implemented a mandatory water conservation measure." But she and Planning Director Barbara Nelson said the early move to strict conservation was a stewardship measure, not a sign of immediate shortage.

[California Dept. of Health Services spokesman Ronald Owens wrote on April 2: "The City of Healdsburg was on the initial list of 17 water systems identified as at risk with drought-related water supply concerns... based on our initial survey. Since that time, some systems, such as Healdsburg, have been able to improve their situation, some with CDPH assistance, and the concerns have reduced."]

Healdsburg is at Stage 2 mandatory water conservation, which calls for a 20% reduction below last year's water use. The city's Web site cites low Russian River flows from Lake Mendocino in imposing the restrictions:

But Pettus said: "Healdsburg has sufficient water to meet current demand." She said the city can additionally draw from wells in Dry Creek Valley as of April 1 of each year. "Between the river and the wells we can meet all of our commercial and residential water needs."

This chic wine-tourism destination with more than 11,000 residents was the largest water district on February's at-risk list. It appeared alongside smaller areas whose reactions have been mixed.

Water managers in Shaver Lake Heights, Bass Lake and Sierra Cedars wrote that they were placed on the "at-risk" list in error and were then removed. Pete Conrad of Sierra Cedars passed on an email from CDPH's Merced District saying Sierra Cedars "should not have been included on the list as there is no indication that the system is experiencing any reduced capacity or other complications due to drought conditions."

Pettus, however, said phone calls to state officials by Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood got no clear explanation for the at-risk designation. She said, "They might have acknowledged the mistake but there was no corrective action taken."

Some of the districts on the list of 17 do face nervous water situations.

One such is Lake of the Woods, nearly a mile above sea level in the Tejon Pass area of Kern County. The New York Times' Adam Nagourney reported March 7 at that the community was near the point of trucking in water.

In Redwood Valley, water manager Bill Koehler didn't mind being on the list. "Yes, we are, and yes, we deserve to be." He said tree-ring records suggested his area of Sonoma County, served by drastically low Lake Mendocino -- "It's a mudflat" -- was suffering a 400-year drought. He said Redwood Valley had about 120 days of water and then would have to depend on neighbors.

The at-risk designation had no formal effect but Pettus said it drew "a tremendous amount of media attention". The 17 listed communities have been mentioned as emblematic of California's drought in news reports as far away as Toronto: Likewise Nagourney, reporting on Lake of the Woods, narrated, "for 17 small rural communities in California, the absence of rain is posing a fundamental threat to the most basic of services: drinking water..."

At CDPH, spokesman Ron Owens responded to a request for comment by calling attention to a new list posted March 4: The new list says "CDPH has prioritized assistance to the following public drinking water systems," and names seven districts: Willits, Redwood Valley, Lake of the Woods, and four remote districts that each serve 100 or fewer people. CDPH had not responded specifically by press time to a request for comment on the objections from Healdsburg and the three smaller towns, nor to a question how the criteria compared for the January 28 and the March 4 lists.

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