Do We Have a Water Shortage or a Shortage of Water Storage? 

I debated about tackling this issue because water rights are a little like politics or religion around here: if you want to remain on good terms with friends and family, don’t discuss them. However, I’m not one to shrink away from an important topic, so while I expect many knowledgeable people to hold differing opinions, I hope we can agree to disagree.

When it comes to water, most folks immediately think of California’s drought and our local water shortage. I agree we’re in a drought, but I’d argue we have plenty of water—if only we’d hold onto it. Our real problem is that we have a severe water storage shortage, a problem not easily solved.

There are significant challenges in locating a potential storage site, from property ownership to geography to the watershed. Even if all those issues were easy to resolve, you’d have to overcome the enormous cost of constructing a storage facility (and complying with the state and federal regulations that accompany such construction). Let’s say you had infinite financial resources, those still wouldn’t resolve the legal, ethical, political, and environmental issues of rerouting or damming the water.

Are you beginning to see the incredible dilemma we have here?

In the United States in the past decade, more dams have been decommissioned than built, even though the demand for water for residential, industrial, and agricultural uses continues to increase. Like most environmental issues, it’s a trade-off. No one likes to see a wild river “tamed,” but without more water storage capacity we suffer the effects of drought.

This is an issue which, right or wrong, gets decided at a political level. While water rights are similar to property rights in many ways, they are also profoundly different. The obvious major difference is this: water that flows through your property, either above ground in a year-round stream or below ground in an aquifer, doesn’t originate on your property and it doesn’t end there, either. Add to that the potential for a single property owner to contaminate the water with commercial or industrial pollutants (or a malfunctioning septic system), and the topic of who owns the water and who’s responsible for its quality and/or cleanup becomes almost impossible to solve without the cooperation of all parties.

Locally, a partial solution may be to combine multiple water districts into one. In the past, disagreements among water districts have been counterproductive for our valley as a whole. On the bright side, those agencies currently appear to be working together for the most part. I still believe consolidation would have significant benefits for most people living in the Ukiah Valley.

Since there is no overlap among districts, and therefore no competition, we have several small monopolies: Willow County Water District, Millview County Water District, Russian River Flood Control District, and the City of Ukiah. If they blended into fewer districts or just one big district, they would at least benefit from economies of scale. And right now when one agency has a surplus and another has a shortage, they have to negotiate. With a single agency, the problem would not come up; the large agency would move water from the surplus area to the shortage area.

If we wanted to gain additional efficiencies, we could blend the water districts with the sanitation district, reducing duplication of equipment, services and leadership. Several executive directors are reaching retirement age. Maybe now is the time to take a closer look at consolidation. If you agree and you happen to know any of the decision makers in these organizations, consider sharing your opinion.

If we really want to tackle water shortages in California, we have to talk about agriculture, since 80 percent of human water usage goes toward ag, but if you think I’m willing to tackle that issue in this valley, you’re crazy.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at or call (707) 462-4000. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.


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