New chapter for groundwater in Sonoma Valley
“We don’t have a water shortage problem, we have a water management problem,” said Karla Noyes, a member of the voluntary advisory panel that has been studying Sonoma Valley’s groundwater for the last decade. Noyes spoke at the first official meeting of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), a new state-mandated body tasked with managing groundwater use in the Sonoma Valley Basin. “This is an important day and important meeting. Years have gone into working on SGMA.”
SGMA (the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) was signed into law by Gov. Brown in 2014 and has the potential to drastically affect how the state – and the valley – uses its groundwater over the next 20 years.
The members of the new six-seat Sonoma Valley GSA board are Councilmember David Cook (representing the City of Sonoma); Mike Sangiacomo (representing North Bay Water District); Mark Heneveld (representing Valley of the Moon Water District); Vickie Mulas (representing Sonoma Resource Conservation District); Sonoma County First District Supervisor Susan Gorin; and Sonoma County Water Agency Director (and Sonoma County Supervisor) David Rabbitt. At the meeting, Gorin was elected board chair and Cook vice chair.
The public hearing was one item on a long meeting agenda, required as part of the GSA’s formation process before the June 30 deadline, although only a handful of people at the June 8 meeting in Sonoma were members of the public.
The boundaries of the Sonoma Valley basin encompass approximately 70 square miles from Dunbar Road south to San Pablo Bay. The basin does not currently include Kenwood or Oakmont. You can use the map viewer at sgma.water.ca.gov/portal/#gsa to see if your property falls within the “medium-priority” Sonoma Valley Basin under the GSA’s purview.
With the Sonoma Valley GSA in place, the board now turns its attention to developing a Sustainability Plan for the basin, which will be required by January 2022. This process includes defining what the popular buzzword “sustainability” actually means for groundwater in Sonoma Valley.
“SGMA moves us to a regulatory framework and requires specific numbers,” said new Sustainability Plan Manager and Chief Engineer for the Sonoma County Water Agency Jay Jasperse. This is very different from Sonoma Valley’s voluntary groundwater monitoring program, which has been in place since 2007. That program has been regularly measuring around 200 wells out of the estimated 3,000 wells in the valley. (Seventy-five percent of those are estimated to be domestic wells.) That program documented that well levels in the southern part of Sonoma Valley have been declining while saltwater intrusion is on the rise. The voluntary program has no requirements to address those changing conditions. SGMA most likely will. It will require the Sonoma GSA to define a sustainability benchmark and reach that goal by 2042 – through a variety of means.
Specific decisions could 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. Failure to reach “sustainability” would result in the state stepping in and loss of local control over groundwater management – a great motivator for all stakeholders involved.
The Sonoma GSA is one of three being formed in the county as part of SGMA. Similar to the Petaluma GSA and Santa Rosa Plain GSA, the Sonoma Valley GSA’s first-year operating budget of $470,000 has been culled from monetary and in-kind personnel donations from the six agencies seated on the GSA board. The GSA will also pursue grant opportunities to help offset the cost of operating in year two, but a long-term funding source will also need to be secured, hence the need for a fee study, next on the agenda.
Although most residents in Sonoma County are paying in some way for the operation of the GSAs, through water bills or taxes, whether we have a well or not, SGMA makes exceptions for what are called “de minimis” well users, those who use two-acre feet or less per year for domestic purposes. Those users cannot, under the law, be subjected to well metering or extraction fees, but could be required to pay a general fee instead. (An average suburban family household is generally assumed to use one acre-foot annually.)
Data from 2012 estimates the total groundwater use in Sonoma Valley at 10,500 acre-feet annually 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.
In addition to budget approval and board appointments at the June 8 meeting, the Sonoma GSA revealed its application process for selecting an Advisory Committee, which will help guide the Sonoma GSA Board on things like policies, regulations, fees, programs and capital projects. The 11-member Advisory Committee will include five interest-based members appointed by the GSA Board as a whole. These interest-based members will include representatives from an environmental organization with a presence in Sonoma Valley, the business community, agriculture, a disadvantaged community (Temelec or the Springs area, for example), and a rural residential well owner. In general, applicants must live or work in the basin boundaries, but one candidate may live in the greater Sonoma Valley watershed. While letters of support aren’t necessary for eligibility, they are welcome to demonstrate the applicant’s ability to represent those interests. Also, preference will be given to candidates with experience and technical expertise with groundwater and its management, and to applicants with experience working with diverse community-based groups. The application is posted online at www.sonomacountygroundwater.org/sv/. Applications should be submitted to GSA Administrator Dan Muelrath at groundwater@VOMWD.com by July 31.
In addition to the appointments made by the GSA Board, there will be one appointment made by each of the representative groups: County, Water Agency, City of Sonoma, Valley of the Moon Water District, North Bay Water District and Sonoma Resource Conservation District (for a total of six). These appointments are to be made by each entity using their own process. Check their respective websites for information about that appointment process. The North Bay Water District doesn’t have a website, but holds its public meetings on the second Tuesday of the month, 7 p.m., at the Schell Vista Fire Station.
The Sonoma Valley GSA will meet on the fourth Monday every other month, 4-6 p.m. at Valley of the Moon Water District office, 19039 Bay St., Sonoma.
Visit www.sonomacountygroundwater.org to stay up to date on GSA information and policy.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.