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Groundwater protection plan moving forward

Public will have all of October to review the final plan before it is submitted

By Jay Gamel

Efforts to put in place a plan to monitor and reverse Sonoma Valley’s deteriorating groundwater resources are nearing fruition.

“The Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Plan (SVGSP) will be released for a 30-day public review on Oct. 1,” Ann DuBay said. DuBay is the Community and Government Affairs Manager for Sonoma Water, as well as the administrator for both the Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.

A community meeting has been set for Tuesday, Oct. 12, at 5:30 p.m., DuBay said. “This informational meeting will cover the highlights of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan and what it means to well owners.” The meeting location has not been decided.

There will be a public hearing on the SVGSP on Oct. 25 at 4 p.m. “Staff will provide an overview of the GSP; discuss comments received to date; and the board will hear public comments,” DuBay said.

Experts have known for decades that the population increases in Sonoma County since WWII have severely taxed limited water resources both above and belowground.

A 2001 U.S. Geological Survey of Sonoma County groundwater basins found that major increases in groundwater pumping were not sustainable. More water was being taken out than was getting back into the complex groundwater systems in the region.

Sonoma County set up a completely voluntary program in 2006 for a local groundwater management plan, appointing an advisory panel of people concerned with and active users of groundwater. In the face of continued losses to groundwater supplies statewide, including Sonoma Valley, California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, called SGMA, mandating specific counties to work out solutions for failing groundwater systems or have the state do it for them.

Sonoma Valley is one of those high-risk areas for continuing, unsustainable groundwater loss.

SGMA set up a specific timeline to turn the situation around: adopt a plan by the start of 2022 that will show positive results by 2042 and develop measurement tools, milestones, and annual reporting to check on progress. Even with delays imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Sonoma Valley are on track to send their plans to the California Department of Water Resources for approval next January.

Fred Allebach is chair of the SVGSP Advisory Committee, appointed by Sonoma Water, and lives in the Sonoma Valley on property with a well. He has a long-time involvement with local and regional water issues.

“Groundwater is the last big common pool resource to face the need for management and conservation,” Allebach said. “People have already overexploited minerals, fish, forests, rangelands — now it’s groundwater.”

And it is a very long-range picture that’s being taken here.

“The current drought is bad, but don’t confuse the management plan as current drought management,” Allebach said. “Ultimately the current drought may speed things up with SGMA and Groundwater Sustainability Plans, but it is important to keep in mind that GSPs are not specifically a response to the current drought, and that GSPs have taken more than reasonable measures to account for future drought and water use.

“The Sonoma Valley groundwater basin is not bad compared to many in the state; we have issues, but not at an emergency level like the southern Central Valley or the Salinas Valley,” he noted.

Sonoma Valley’s GSP includes ways to measure groundwater levels, groundwater storage, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, water quality, and interconnected surface water. Each of these has measurable objective metrics, minimum thresholds, and stated undesirable result conditions. Results of these measurements will be the triggers for future action, Allebach said.

The more accurate the data, the better the decisions that can be made, Ken Johnson said. A wellowning resident of Sonoma (city) and a geological engineer working for a private consultant, Johnson has a long love of groundwater in all its forms and serves as an at-large member of the Groundwater Advisory Committee.

“The biggest challenges to me are getting the public aware and engaged on the importance of managing [groundwater],” Johnson said. “The data that we have at present is good, but rather limited. We are looking at opportunities to enroll more well owners as data sources to broaden the information we have,” he said.

Johnson knows how resistant residents, farmers, and businesses can be to putting meters on wells.

“A lot of people look at meters as a way to control water,” he said. “There is a lot of resistance to that. At the same time, it is real data from our perspective.”

Programs to learn more, conserve more, and improve the groundwater situation will cost money, which may lead to eventual fees, but for now “the state is providing a lot of funding. We are all thinking about ways to get the community to support.”

The state law, Sigma, exempts all residential users of less than two acre-feet annually — equivalent to about 1,700 gallons a day — from being required to install meters. Data shows the vast majority of private well owners use less than a quarter of that amount of water annually. However, the law does give the GSA the authority to regulate and to assess fees on all groundwater users, according to advisory committee member Vicki Hill.

“Voluntary actions will come first,” Allebach said. “Stakeholders need a chance to show we can work together and conserve before more stringent measures come out. The GSA is very conscious that fees are not popular, especially for a resource that has been seen as ‘free’ and a private property right. My take is that the GSA will bend over backwards to find grants and state monies to pay for as much as possible. People should know though, that as basin stakeholders, all will bear some responsibility for the common pool resource aspect of groundwater.”

Information may be found at www.sonomacountygroundwater. org and sonomavalleygroundwater. org.