In Roman PolanskI’s Chinatown—arguably the coolest movie ever made about the murky political world of H2O—private eye Jake Gittes never unravels the homicide of Hollis Mulwray, the chief engineer for the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The case unravels him.
“Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown,” says Gittes’ levelheaded buddy Lawrence Walsh.
These days, Polanski’s movie seems as timely as ever, not just in California, but all across the West where it’s drier than ever before in recorded history. In California, the last four years have been the driest since the 1920s, according to UC Davis groundwater expert Thomas Harter. “Groundwater levels are lower than they have ever been before as the consequence of groundwater overdrafts,” Harter explained on June 10, at the Sonoma Wine Grape Growers Annual Seminar in Forestville. He added, “If locals don’t manage groundwater, the state will.”
Even Roman Polanski might be shocked by the specter of the current “mega-drought” that has spiked fears, led homeowners to abandon lush lawns, install artificial turf and dig deeper wells. Not only that, citizens are encouraged to watch neighbors and report culprits who wash cars in broad daylight, habitually hose down sidewalks and soak red roses at noon—all water-wasting no-no’s.
Meanwhile, those who pooh-pooh the drought, like climate change deniers, go their merry ways. Next year, they predict, El Niño will arrive, it’ll pour cats and dogs and everything will be bright green again. Not to worry, folks, except that in Sonoma climate change means hotter, dryer summers, more evaporation from soils, plants, lakes and streams and, yes, less water all around.
Daniel Muelrath, the buoyant general manager of the Valley of the Moon Water District (VOMWD), knows Polanski’s Chinatown. He tells me he’s watched all the movies and read all the books about water. In his Bay Street office on a hot, dusty afternoon, he unfurls a large color map that shows the waterscape for the entire Valley of the Moon: fire hydrants, storage tanks and the six wells that the agency owns or leases. It’s an indispensible tool for water engineers and not for general consumption. Muelrath won’t let it out of his sight.
Bad guys, he suggests, could use the map to wreak havoc in the Valley of the Moon, where the drought has stretched water resources, brought citizens close to the boiling point and opened a new chapter in the story of water and power in Sonoma. A lone reporter can feel like Jake Gittes investigating a case where sources won’t talk. Indeed, for everyone who craves the truth about water, there seem to be just as many who’d like to hide it in subterranean aquifers.
Well drillers’ reports—there are about 800,000 in the state capitol—aren’t public documents. They’re signed, sealed and filed away, though that may change with new legislation in Sacramento prompted by the paucity of rain and zero snowpack.
Muelrath insists Valley of the Moon residents are all in the same boat when it comes to water, and that solutions will have to serve everyone. Born in 1979 and too young to have experienced the drought of 1976-77, he graduated from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and worked for the city of Santa Rosa in water resource conservation. There doesn’t seem to be a drop of Roman Polanski cynicism in his veins, though he knows the turbulent tale of water in the Golden State.
He’s visited its celebrated landmarks—Hetch Hetchy, the Salton Sea, Tehapachi Pass, where water from the north moves through pipes to the south. That’s the direction it travels almost everywhere in the state as it brings Californians together and also divides haves from have-nots, urban from rural, and folks close to forests and coastlines from those on the edge of desert.
Muelrath reels off data. “The VOMWA serves 23,000 people,” he tells me. “In 2013–14, 85 percent of our water came from the Russian River via the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), 15 percent from local wells. This year we’ll buy 5 percent less from SCWA and draw 5 percent more from our own resources. Last year rainfall in the Valley of the Moon was 75 percent of normal. We had better ground water recharge this year than last because of storms in December and February and we’re in better shape now than we were during the drought of 1976–77 because of improved technology and fewer leaks.”
He pauses for a moment, glances at the map on his desk and adds, “Lake Sonoma is 85 percent of normal. I’d rate that a ‘B.’ The big unknown factor is the weather. In the water equation it’s the hardest thing to predict.”
The City of Sonoma’s water works are separate from VOMWA, though the picture in town is similar to the picture in the Valley. Dan Takasugi, the city engineer and director of public works, occupies an office on the plaza where he keeps an eye on the ebb and flow of water resources. Ninety-two percent of city water comes from the SCWA, he says, and 8 percent from wells 400 feet deep that are pumped only during the driest months of the year. Takasugi adds, “We store water in tanks within city limits and on Thornsberry Road; we chlorinate.”
Moreover, he explains that families in their own houses use more water than renters in apartments and that overall consumption by urban residents is down dramatically this year. In May 2015, for example, customers used 42,246,477 gallons, a 35 percent reduction from May 2013.
But despite this handy data, neither Muelrath nor Takasugi knows the number of privately owned wells in the Valley or how many acre-feet are pumped every year. Apparently no one knows. If they do, they’re not talking. All across Sonoma Valley drillers dig new wells 52 weeks of the year, deeper than ever before, even as the water table falls. It doesn’t fall everywhere, but it does in many locations, according to Ray Larbre whose family went into the well and pump business in 1931. These days his firm installs pumps and leaves messy drilling to others.
“People in the Valley insist we have a Mediterranean climate,” Larbre tells me. “Except we don’t have the Mediterranean Sea and we don’t have summer rain, either, as they do in many parts of Europe. That’s a big difference.”
He gazes out the window and adds, “One thing I see around here are multimillion dollar estates with huge gardens and big lawns. They’re often unoccupied.”
Brandon Burgess works for Weeks Drilling and Pump Company with headquarters in Sebastopol and crews on the job from Covelo to Redwood City and everywhere in between.
“We’re in the Gold Rush of water,” he tells me on his cellphone. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve been drilling 200 wells a year. Some of our business is driven by fear, a by-product of the drought and the unknown. Still, a good well always increases the value of a property. Some land owners are putting in wells on 50-acre blocks to get ready for development.”
Crews from Weeks dig wells that go down a thousand feet. Some provide 2,000-gallons a minute, others just two on the same property.
“I get calls from farmers in the Central Valley who want us to drill,” Burgess says. “We could make money hand over fist, and while it’s enticing to leave the area and make big bucks, that’s not our thing. We take pride in putting out a quality product and we don’t cut corners, though there’s pressure to do so.”
For seven days in May, Drake Coffey and Mike Iraola, both veteran Weeks workers, dug a well 300 feet deep on Broadway, a short distance from the plaza, where a good well already existed. The owners planned to put in a tasting room and wanted more water. Using a very noisy, old, mud-rotary rig called “The Hole Master,” Coffey and Iraola worked all day. And by the end of each day they were covered with mud and clay, which is harder to work with than the Valley’s volcanic rock that’s more likely to yield abundant water. The harder the ground, drillers say, the better the well.
“Mike and I do about 60 wells a year,” Coffey explains. “Well drilling is a good job. People always need water, especially in a drought. Some folks put in wells so they don’t have to be on city water. Some have water anxiety. It’s usually more gratifying to put in a well for a family than a vineyard; growers often don’t appreciate that fact that someone had to bust ass to get water for them. It’s a tough job that takes a toll on a body.”
Sonoma Valley Wholesale Nursery on Arnold Drive has a new well, and, though business plummeted after Governor Brown asked Californians to cut back on water, customers have come back to buy everything from olive trees to succulents and roses. Kellan MacKay, the savvy sales manager, comes from Seattle.
“I’m a plant nerd, a foodie and I raise chickens,” she says. “I settled in Sonoma to dry out my bones.” Fluent in Spanish as well as English—an advantage in the landscaping and nursery business where many Latinos work—MacKay also knows both the Latin and the common names for the plants she sells, including Hydrangea macrophylla that she urges customers not to purchase because it gobbles water.
“We need to change the whole water paradigm, but I don’t see many people doing it,” she says. “A lot of education has to be done. It’s hard to make the transition to drought-resistant gardening and landscaping, but I believe that we can do it.”
She holds up a flower and smells. “This is California, not the Arizona desert,” she adds. “A garden is supposed to be enjoyed, with trees and shrubs that use water appropriately. Here at the nursery we’re far more conscious about water than we were a short time ago. A great thing about this place is that it’s an oasis for plants and a haven for birds, insects, foxes and more.”
Paul Wirtz, proprietor of Paul’s Produce, raises lush vegetables on the parcel adjoining the nursery. He cultivates 40 percent more land now than he did in 2011, but he’s using water far more efficiently than ever before with drip and sub-surface irrigation (especially for onions) and not much overhead irrigation.
“We’re a small farm,” he says. “Seventy-five percent of what we grow goes to Valley residents. I feel good that it’s not exported as so much wine is. We grow lots of lettuce; our customers demand it, though it takes a huge amount of water. If there’s more pressure to conserve I might have to think through every crop and not grow some crops.”
Wirtz loves farming, but he’s worried about the future of the family farm. “I don’t want to get into anything with grapes,” he says. “But there’s only so much water around.” He adds, “If we can’t grow as a business we’ll die.”
He’s not the only one reluctant to talk about grapes. One vineyard worker who asked for anonymity described grapes as the Valley’s “sacred cow.”
Such conversations often lead to the question of dry-farming vineyards, a process using little or no irrigation. James Knight, an enologist who writes for the North Bay Bohemian, thinks vineyards might be as profitable tomorrow as they are today, but he suggests that they may not be dry-farmed.
“I don’t see a trend toward dry farming in Sonoma,” he says. “There’s no mass movement toward drought-resistant root stock. Farmers who have dry-farmed grapes are getting out of dry-farming.”
Pam Strayer maintains a widely read blog, “Wine Country Geographic.” She has also written seven apps about organic and biodynamic wines in northern California. “Until the 1970s, most vineyards in Sonoma Valley were dry-farmed,” she tells me on a breezy Sunday afternoon while we sip a McFadden Chardonnay. Strayer adds, “The California wines that won at the famous blind tasting in 1976 in France, and that put California on the viticultural map of the world, came from dry-farmed grapes. Then corporations moved in and changed nearly everything. Grape growers began to irrigate to maximize tonnage. Today, irrigation is all about quantity not quality. Saving water in the vineyards is not a popular subject with grape growers.”
At Glen Ellen’s Old Hill Ranch, Will Bucklin makes up for every one who tiptoes around the sacred cow. No ifs, ands or buts about it, he doesn’t approve of the practices of the grape industry, especially what he calls “the waste of water.” Born in San Francisco in 1961, he spent summers in Sonoma as a boy and learned about water and wine from Otto Teller, his mother’s second husband, who bought Old Hill Ranch in 1980 and dry-farmed grapes just as grapes began to take over the Valley and as traditional crops like walnuts vanished acre by acre. Thirty-five years later, the monoculture is far more entrenched than ever before. Drive across the Valley and you can’t help but see baby vineyards in almost every nook and cranny.
Bucklin sells about half his harvest to Ravenswood Winery in the foothills of the Mayacamas at the end of Gehricke Road, where Joel Petersen makes some of the best wines money can buy. The rest of Bucklin’s grapes go into his own wines that are marketed under the Old Hill label. “Our paradigm at Old Hill is weird,” he says. “We like weird.” Fortunately, his well, which is only 120 feet deep, produces 80 gallons a minute, which means that he’s sitting pretty.
On a hot day he strolls through his fields with his dog Matilda and looks at gnarled vines over 100 years old with roots that go down 40 to 50 feet. There’s no plastic here, no T-tape and no irrigation lines, but there’s enough water in the soil for the grapes to thrive.
“Dry farming is an aesthetic thing, but it’s not just about aesthetics,” Bucklin says. “I dry-farm because I think dry-farming produces the best grapes, which in turn make the best wines. In Italy, Greece and Italy they dry-farm and they make the best frickin’ wines you can drink.”
Bucklin looks toward the Mayacamas and then toward Sonoma Mountain. “Most grape growers around here want to move water off the land as quickly as possible so they can get tractors into the field to do whatever needs to be done,” he says.
At Old Hill, he slows down rainwater, spreads it and sinks it into the ground. He adds compost, grows cover crops, tills modestly and mixes soil with organic matter so that it retains water.
“Much of farming is fear-based,” Bucklin says. “The fear of climate change and the fear of drought that begets anxiety. The challenge here in the Valley and elsewhere is to overcome the fear that things will get out of control.”
Underlying drought anxiety is the fear many people have of losing control of water they’ve had unlimited rights to for generations.
Many Sonomans, like many Californians, are wary of executive power whether it comes from Washington, D.C., Sacramento or Santa Rosa, where the Sonoma County Water Agency has its headquarters and where decisions are made that affect farms, fish, forests and folks who’d like to enjoy a patch of green and know that their children and grandchildren will be able to turn on the tap and still get uncontaminated water.
No story about water in the Valley would be complete without Susan Gorin, the supervisor for the 1st District that includes the City of Sonoma, Kenwood, Agua Caliente, Glen Ellen, El Verano, Boyes Hot Springs, Schellville and Vineburg. It’s hard to find a public figure in the North Bay with a better grasp of the drought than Gorin, or one who is more forthcoming.
“There are many moving pieces to the story,” she begins. “The good news is that we’re using the drought as an opportunity to send the message that water is fragile and finite. For a very long time, there’s been a free-for-all around the state and right here in Sonoma. We know now that more water is coming out of the ground than is being recharged and that there are serious issues about depletion near the golf course on Arnold Drive and around Eighth Street East where there’s commerce and manufacturing.”
Gorin pauses to gather her thoughts, then continues. “We’ve captured the attention of the public,” she says. “Now’s the time to engage with the rural and the agricultural community. Farmers and grape growers have to recognize that they need to take water conservation as seriously as urban users who have cut way back.”
She repeats the quip commonly, if erroneously, attributed to Mark Twain, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” though she doesn’t mean to encourage the consumption of alcohol or water wars.
“We have to avoid in-fighting,” Gorin says. “Citizens want to be included in the conversation and government needs to listen to them. We have to sit down in a democratic way and determine the best uses of water for all. We’d like farmers to build ponds for storage, develop sustainable vineyards, use gray water, persuade wineries to recycle water and make reclaimed wastewater available for agriculture.”
It’s hard not to conclude from what Gorin says that various agencies will jockey with one another for power, water and bragging rights.
“We’re doing a lot of amazing things,” Gorin says. “It takes time. We’re learning many of the same lessons that Australia learned during its drought.”
Citizens in the Valley of the Moon appear to have turned to water conservation without brazen political arm-twisting. At least that’s true for those not on unregulated wells.
At the Sonoma Community Center on East Napa Street the old lawn is gone, replaced by a model garden with native plants. A sturdy new stainless steel tank along the side of the building can store up to 8,000 gallons of rainwater for irrigation. On June 22, it was empty.
On a Monday morning, Seth Dolinsky, in shorts and sunglasses, pulls up grasses that aren’t as drought resistant as he’d like them to be. They’ll be replaced by the best that nature can provide for hot dry summers. The landscape manager at the Community Center and the president of the Sonoma Valley Grange, Dolinsky describes a time when the Valley was green in summer. He looks forward to a time when it might be green again if citizens conserve, recycle, restore and more. “People are curious about ways to save water,” he says. “They want to know what they can do.”
At the Valley of the Moon Water Agency, Dan Muelrath shares Dolinsky’s sentiments. He also leads by example at his home in Santa Rosa where he’s removed lawn, put in drought-resistant plants and built swales to soak up rainwater. “With an ecological approach, I believe we can have a sustainable Valley,” he says. “We can have enough water for veggie farms, dairy, grapes and domestic use, too.”
If the drought is a story about ecology and economy it’s also a story about lifestyles, identities and generations.
At Sonoma Garden Park on Seventh Street East, a group of school kids are learning about birds, bees, bugs and H2O. Tony Passantino, who works at the Sonoma Ecology Center and runs the camp, says that the subject of water is incorporated in every aspect of the program, from wildlife habitat to sustainable gardens.
Thalia is just eight, but she’s already aware of the need to conserve, recycle and recharge. “When you brush your teeth you have to turn off the tap and not let water run,” she tells me. “You can’t put bad stuff down sewage drains because that would pollute creeks.”
When it comes to water, Valley of the Moon kids are all right. Now adults need to get their act together.