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Too Much Water In Humboldt County?

Michael Joyce/JPR

With water shortages so common up and down the west coast, there's been no shortage of drought stories in the news. But JPR's Michael Joyce found this story about the only county in California with too much water, and the problem of figuring out what to do with it all.

It’s a quintessential summer day in Arcata: gray and cool. Sprinklers water the outfield as the Humboldt Crabs baseball team prepare to host the Alameda Merchants.  The players, the fans, and the BBQ out by right field are all warming up.

As is the ever-popular Crabgrass Band. That’s where I find Steve Morris, a trumpeter sitting in from Visalia.

I asked him how the drought was down in the Central Valley.

Steve Morris: "It’s terrible. We have dry reservoirs; not enough water to float boats; fallowed fields … "

Steve didn't know there was a part of California that wasn't hurting for water. 

Michael Joyce: "What if I were to tell you that Humboldt County - this county - has a surplus of water?"

Steve Morris: "OK. I’d believe that."

Carol Rische, the outgoing general manager of the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, says the area has way more water than it can even use.  “We’re using on average about 10-million gallons. We have water rights for 75-million gallons per day," explains Rische.

A big reason this area only uses just 13 percent of its water supply is the closure of two huge pulp mills over the past twenty years.

Carol Rische: “Those two pulp mills used 40 to 50 million gallons per day, four to five times the collective and aggregate demand in our community.”

Now the district faces a dilemma.  Although Humboldt may be the only county in California not in a drought, its water rights are up for review in 2029, just 14 years from now. 

In California, water rights work like this: if you don’t use it, you lose it. And this district is only using about one-seventh of its supply from the Mad River.

So it really has three choices if it wants to keep its rights to such a large surplus: one, attract some new, big time water customers; two, sell the water and move it out of the area, or three, keep it in the Mad River for ecosystem enhancements.

Aldaron Laird: “I think we need to make sure that we take care of ourselves first.”

Aldaron Laird is an environmental planner and board member with the water district.  He favors applying for state and federal credits for what’s called "dedicated in-stream flow."

Aldaron Laird: “In-stream flow would be water that would be released into the river dedicated specifically for maintaining the aquatic ecosystem of the Mad River. And I think we really need that if we want to continue to have salmon and steelhead on the north coast of California. To me, I think that’s worth a lot. And sure, there are people who say it is wasted to the sea. But they don’t place any value on fisheries."

Increased in-stream flows, when properly timed and balanced,  create water temperatures and water levels that are ideal for fish and other aquatic species. 

And what about the other two options? Finding more local customers or selling water out of the area?  Humboldt’s population of just over 130,000 is not growing quickly nor are the prospects for any businesses taking over the pulp mills’ mega-water-use. In terms of transferring water elsewhere trains, trucks, and barges have all been considered but found to be cost prohibitive.  

That leaves pipelines. Water district studies estimate the cost of building a pipeline east to the Red Bluff area to be between a quarter and a half a billion dollars depending on the pipe diameter. A pipeline south into Mendocino would cost much more. 

Again,  the water district’s Carol Rische: “If you amortize that over 40-50 years your delivery cost of water east is between $1800-2500 an acre-foot, going south its between $2000-3000 per acre-foot. So that’s very expensive municipal water and that’s very expensive -- almost, in my opinion, out of the question -- ag water. Some of the ag water  on the federal project in California [is] well less than $100 an acre-foot. So you’re not even in the ballpark.”

Meanwhile back at the ballpark, I ask Steve the trumpet player what he thinks we should do with our surplus of water. This time a fellow horn player named Amanda overhears us.

Michael Joyce: "Being someone from the Central Valley, what do you think we should do with the surplus? Do you think we should keep it or do you think we should share it?"

Steve Morris: "Obviously share it."

Michael Joyce: "How do we get the water from here, where we have a surplus to the places that need it?"

Steve Morris: "Tunnels."

Amanda: "Our fish need water too. We don’t want all the water shipped out at the cost of fish health. And a lot of it does already go to the valley."

And for those who think a water surplus precludes the need for conservation, consider this: the city of Arcata estimates that about two-thirds of it’s municipal  energy use goes toward the distribution and disposal of water.