Water levels might be low in the Chetco River, but demand is low, so city officials are not putting in place any restrictions on water use, said City Manager Gary Milliman.
The city’s municipal code requires two things to occur — water flows dipping below certain levels and use increasing — before any restrictions are announced, and both criteria must be met.
Voluntary restrictions are triggered when river flows drop below 100 cubic feet per second (cfs) and water withdrawal is above 4.5 cfs. Mandatory curtailment may be implemented when river flows drop below 80 cfs and water withdrawals exceed 4.5 cfs.
As of Aug. 19, water flow was at 56 cfs, but withdrawal — demand from consumers — was only 2.2 cfs, most likely because few people are watering their lawns in the cooler, overcast weather Brookings has been experiencing.
Another reason for the lower demand could be that the city has been finding and repairing numerous leaks and old pipes throughout the area.
Until now, the record low for the Chetco River was 63 cfs, set in 1987.
“We have experienced other periods in the last few years where river flows dropped below 80 cfs, but water usage remained well below 4.5 cfs during those periods as well,” Milliman said.
The city of Brookings extracts water from the Chetco River aquifer through use of a “Ranney collector,” essentially eight large perforated pipes that extend outward 28 to 30 feet below the bottom of the river and into the aquifer.
The city is in the process of updating its Water Master Plan, which will be used to program water source and distribution projects for the next 20 years. The new plan will identify additional actions that can be taken to further reduce water demand.
The preliminary data indicates that average per capita residential water use has dropped more than 40 percent since 2000, primarily due to conservation efforts made by residents.
But it’s only mid-August, some people have pointed out, and Curry County has received little rain all summer. Snow was virtually nonexistent last winter, and water levels are sure to dip even further, said Carl Page, who works to protect fisheries in Curry County.
He is concerned about gross water demand — and its effects on the estuary downstream.
“Harbor may take about the same (as Brookings), other water users below the Ice Box (bar below Second Bridge) also withdraw some level,” Page said. “And then water is taken for the golf course. The statement that their water (and Harbor’s) comes from the lower water table and does not come from the river is voodoo science. They are connected.”
They are connected, Milliman agreed, but conservation will not save water, as there is no place to store it.
“How do we save?” Milliman said. “The end of our water system is not reservoir- or lake-based. The reservoir is the watershed.”
While there is no way to keep the water up in the watershed, Page notes that anything taken out of the river can affect fisheries downstream.
“The critical point is how much makes it to the estuary to support salmonids,” he said. “This freshwater influence is crucial for their forage species and a healthy estuary, mixing fresh and salt water.”
Without this food source, Page said, smolt go to the ocean too soon, at too small a size, and don’t make it back to the river as adults.
“We know the science but ignore the warning signs,” he said. “We may be headed for a fish kill by late summer.”
He and Milliman urge citizens to use less water anyway.
“Anyone can (ration water) on their own,” Milliman said. “We have a criteria, and we haven’t reached that criteria. It’s always a good idea to conserve.”