Questions abound at Sonoma Valley groundwater meeting
Sarah C. Phelps
Well metering and fees associated with the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in the Sonoma Valley basin were two of the top concerns discussed at a meeting on March 27, which drew a crowd of approximately 200 to the Sonoma Charter School’s gymnasium.
The meeting was called by county and city officials to inform the public about the proposed structure of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), the entity which will be responsible for measuring and monitoring groundwater use in the Sonoma Valley basin going forward. The GSA Board’s formation is required by state legislation passed in 2014. The state-defined boundaries of the Sonoma Valley Basin encompass approximately 70 square miles from Dunbar Road south to San Pablo Bay. It does not currently include Kenwood or Oakmont. Two other basins in the area, the Petaluma and the Santa Rosa Plain basins, were also identified by the state and are undergoing their own GSA formation processes.
Who is on the Sonoma Valley GSA?
The boards of the six authorities that will sit on the GSA Board in Sonoma Valley – the City of Sonoma, County of Sonoma, North Bay Water District, Sonoma County Water Agency, Sonoma Resource Conservation District and the Valley of the Moon Water District – will be voting to approve the proposed framework over the next few weeks. The GSA must be in place by June 30.
In order to answer questions about whether the interests of everyone who shares the groundwater in Sonoma Valley will be equally represented across the six-member GSA Board and the 12-member GSA Advisory Body – from agriculture, domestic well users, municipal water systems, local landowners, disadvantaged communities, business, and environmental users – the candidates will first need to be appointed. The Sonoma Valley GSA Board’s first public appointment was made on March 28, when Supervisor Shirlee Zane appointed Supervisor Susan Gorin to represent the Board of Supervisors.
To find out more details about the GSA Board and Advisory Body framework, read “Who will make decisions about our groundwater?” [Kenwood Press, Aug. 1, 2016, www.kenwoodpress.com/pub/a/8982] and visit www.sonomacountygroundwater.org to sign up for updates.
Fees, possible well metering
After its formation, the GSA will be required to develop and adopt a Groundwater Sustainability Plan by January 31, 2022, and reach sustainability by 2042. Failure to do so will result in the state stepping in to do it instead. The state law gives GSAs the authority to assess fees, require monitoring on wells, set new standards, and implement capital projects and other measures to maintain the health of regional groundwater supplies.
Specific decisions could likely include regulations on things like well metering, groundwater extraction, or new well construction, or measures to fund the GSA’s work, such as fees, assessments or taxes. The GSA can also pursue grant funding. Year one start-up costs have been estimated at $470,000.
But not much is certain until the GSA governing board is formed.
“No one across the state knows all that’s going to happen with it. There are lots of gray areas,” said Jay Jasperse from the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). And all these decisions will be opportunities for further public input, said officials.
In order to answer questions about fees – or who will be subject to them – a fee study will need to be done. Officials stressed that “de minimis” well users, those who use two-acre feet or less per year (about 651,702 gallons) for domestic purposes, cannot, under the law, be subjected to well metering or extraction fees, but could be required to pay a general fee instead.
In order to answer questions about what “sustainability” means and what will need to be done to achieve it, new, more specific groundwater measuring will need to be performed to more accurately gauge the state of the groundwater in the Sonoma Valley basin.
Since 2007, the Sonoma Valley has had a voluntary groundwater monitoring program with 200 wells out of the estimated 3,000 wells in the valley being regularly measured. Seventy-five percent of those are estimated to be domestic users. While that voluntary program gives Sonoma Valley a head start, the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) will require a more precise scientific study in order to develop measurable objectives, said Marcus Trotta, hydrogeologist at the SCWA. An example of this might be a numerical range of acceptable groundwater levels, which will then be used to make sure groundwater is not being drawn out at a faster rate than it is being recharged into the basin. There’s already evidence of declining groundwater levels and saltwater intrusion in the southern part of the valley. While the voluntary program covered the whole watershed, including upland areas, the GSP will only cover the alluvial basin on the valley floor. The voluntary measuring program in the upland areas may continue after the implementation of the GSP, said Trotta.
Getting a better sense of where we are and where we need to be in terms of groundwater quality and quantity will also help answer questions about how increasing development will dovetail with the GSA’s sustainability goals.
The state law requires land use planning policies to move forward in conjunction with GSP regulations in the future said Sandi Potter from Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD). “We will be looking over the next five years at [county] general plan policy,” said Potter. To those concerned about agriculture’s use of groundwater, Potter reminded them that the Agriculture Commissioners Office controls the planting of vineyards and sets best practices, not PRMD. According to the most current groundwater data from 2012, “agriculture” uses 55 percent annually, followed by “rural residential” at 27 percent, “mutual” at six percent, “municipal” at five percent, “irrigated turf” at four percent, and “commercial” at three percent.
“We have made the point of saying this is something imposed by the state, but really this is here so everyone who uses groundwater in Sonoma Valley can continue to use groundwater,” stressed county administrative analyst Peter Bruland.
The North Bay Water District Board of Directors will hear a presentation on the GSA at its meeting on April 11, 7 p.m. at the Schell-Vista Fire Station, 22950 Broadway, Sonoma. The Sonoma County Water Agency Board of Directors will hear a presentation on April 25, as will the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. The Sonoma Resource Conservation District Board of Directors will hear a presentation on April 27, the Sonoma City Council May 1, and the Valley of the Moon Water District on May 2. All of those meetings are open to the public. Information about times and locations can be found on their respective websites.
To find out if your property falls on or within the Sonoma Valley Basin boundary line and will be under the purview of the GSA, visit gis.water.ca.gov/app/gicima.