Paying for groundwater sustainability
Groundwater agency considers future funding options to develop its sustainability plan
Sarah C. Phelps
How much are you willing to pay for groundwater?
Should the costs be spread out equitably among all water users, just groundwater users, or should only the biggest consumers of groundwater have to pay?
Should it be a tax or a fee?
These questions and more were up for discussion at the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s (GSA) first public workshop aimed at gauging general opinion on a series of funding proposals for the nascent agency, which has been charged with developing and implementing a sustainability plan for the Sonoma Valley Basin’s groundwater over the next 20 years.
The Sonoma Valley GSA, one of three in the county, was officially formed in June 2017, as mandated under state legislation called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). All six of the state-approved members of the agency – the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, the North Bay Water District, the City of Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon Water District, the County of Sonoma, and the Sonoma County Water Agency – have pledged funds for the first two years of the GSA’s operation, with a promise of repayment. After year two (which starts this June), the GSA will need to be self-sustaining with an independent funding source as it develops a Groundwater Sustainability Plan over the next five years – with a deadline of Jan. 31, 2022. To complete the plan, the GSA will need to find funding for things like filling groundwater data gaps, quantifying the current groundwater conditions in the groundwater basin, and developing a way to monitor those conditions.
With a fee study underway by Oakland-based Raftelis, the GSA is trying to determine which financial structure will be most the palatable to the landowners who fall within the Sonoma Valley Basin’s boundaries – the basin under the Sonoma Valley GSA authority.
The basin, as defined by the state, encompasses approximately 70 square miles from east of Slattery Road in Glen Ellen south to San Pablo Bay. The basin does not currently include Kenwood or Oakmont. You can view the current Sonoma Valley basin boundaries at sgma.water.ca.gov/portal/#gsa.
However, at its March 28 meeting the GSA board voted to revisit extending the basin boundaries north to include Kenwood and Oakmont – or south to include the Highway 121 corridor near Sonoma Raceway – when the Department of Water Resource’s next application window opens in 2023. At that time, the GSA hopes to have more data about how both those areas are hydrologically connected to the Sonoma Valley basin.
“It is highly likely that it will happen, but it’s premature to say it will happen by a certain date,” said First District Supervisor and GSA board chair Susan Gorin.
In lieu of modifying current basin boundaries, Gorin said that it could be within the purview of the GSA and its advisory committee to monitor and possibly comment on future development projects in those areas as they relate to groundwater use.
State law gives GSAs broad authority to manage groundwater, including authority to increase groundwater supply (for example, through undertaking projects to increase groundwater recharge or replenishment) and to manage groundwater demand through well monitoring and, if necessary, regulating groundwater extraction. After the adoption of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan, the GSA has 20 years to maintain or bring the basin (whatever its boundaries) into sustainable conditions – or the state steps in.
“This is not a fluffy goal, these will be hard numbers,” said Jay Jasperse, Chief Engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency, talking about how this new sustainability plan will differ from the voluntary groundwater sustainability plan the Sonoma Valley had in place for over a decade. The new GSA sustainability plan will eclipse that one.
To get these hard numbers, more data will need to be collected about current groundwater conditions in the basin. Data from 2012 estimates the total groundwater use in Sonoma Valley at 10,500 acre-feet annually (3.42 billion gallons) with agriculture users taking up 55 percent, rural residential 27 percent, mutual water companies six percent, municipal five percent, irrigated turf (like baseball or soccer fields) four percent and commercial three percent. Nearly 60 percent of the valley’s water supply comes from groundwater. The remainder comes from the Russian River, other local surface water, and recycled water.
There are still a lot of unknowns in the groundwater equation. For example, there are 12,487 taxable parcels in the basin, but only 1,706 known wells in the basin. Many wells dug before the 1970s are not registered. It’s likely that there are more wells to be documented in the basin.
That makes pinpointing accurate costs difficult.
As part of its rate study, Raftelis developed a series of funding scenarios, from charging a fee per well owned to charging a fee per acre owned. Preliminary cost ranges are $260-$410 per well, $90-$140 per acre-foot pumped (or $.28-$.43 per 1,000 gallons pumped), $36-$56 per parcel (parcel tax), or $13-$21 per acre owned. However, these numbers are likely to change throughout the process as data gets refined. The GSA is also hoping for a $1 million dollar grant from the state, which could contribute $250,000 to the GSA’s operating budget for the next four years, offsetting what it may need to charge. The lowest numbers in Raftelis’s funding scenarios reflects the GSA getting this grant.
“We know we have to pay for this somehow,” said Sally Van Etten of Raftelis. “If it’s not paid for locally, the state will come in.”
Van Etten said the state-imposed “intervention” fees would most likely be higher than anything developed at the local level. Preliminary numbers released by the State Water Resources Control Board for 2018 list a $300 base filing fee per well and a cost of $45-55 volume metric rate per acre-foot (one acre-foot is 325,851 gallons) – and these wouldn’t include whatever costs were needed to develop the Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the basin.
Some of the financial options being considered in the rate study would require voter approval – like the parcel tax. Surprisingly, many in the audience at the March 14 meeting at the Sonoma Veteran’s Building publicly agreed that a parcel tax in some form or another was the most equitable way to approach funding the GSA. At the GSA Board’s March 28 meeting, supervisor and GSA director David Rabbitt, representing the Sonoma County Water Agency, also voiced his support for this idea. However, Van Etten reminded the GSA Board that there are significant practical and legal challenges to putting something like this on the November ballot, and a parcel tax requires two-thirds voter approval.
A parcel fee through property taxes, may be a more feasible approach, she said, or a hybrid approach using a fixed fee spread across all users for the first few years while data is being gathered that transitions into a user fee later on. This hybrid idea was also something widely supported at the March 14 public meeting.
Small well owners might not be subjected to an individual user fee, as SGMA makes exceptions for what are called “de minimis” well users, those who use two-acre feet or less per year for domestic purposes. (An average suburban family household is generally assumed to use one acre-foot annually.) Those users cannot, under the law, be subjected to well metering or extraction fees, but could be required to pay a general fee instead.
There will be more public opportunities to comment on the GSA rate study and fee proposals. Those interested in learning more should visit sonomacountygroundwater.org.