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Groundwater plans near adoption

Plans for Sonoma Valley will need state approval

By Jay Gamel

It’s been a long haul, and a lot of work has been put in by a large citizens advisory panel, but the groundwater sustainability plan for the Sonoma Valley groundwater subbasin will be up for adoption by the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (SVGSA, one of three Sonoma County Groundwater Sustainability Agencies or SCGSAs) on Dec. 6, and put forward in January 2022 for possible state adoption by the California Department of Water Resources.

The plan lays out a program for reducing groundwater losses and restoring the resources to former levels over the next 20 years.

“The SVGSA Advisory Committee unanimously voted to endorse the SVGS Plan,” committee chair Fred Allebach said. “The advisory committee met 39 times for over 880 hours of volunteer service. The GSA board is still up to approve the plan on Dec. 6, with possible adoption by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Jan. 6, 2022.” After that, the plan is sent to the state for adoption.

A U.S. Geological Survey study of the Sonoma Valley’s groundwater resources in 2006 found definite indications of declining groundwater levels over a long period of time. Soon after, the state legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA; frequently called “Sigma”), which provides directions and funding for several areas determined to have critical groundwater issues, enabling agencies develop long-range plans to not only stop the groundwater declines, but reverse them.

Sonoma Valley, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma water basins were all singled out for development of sustainable groundwater plans.

“This plan has been in the works since 2018,” Sonoma Water Director of Communications Ann DuBay said. “The SCGSA has received hundreds of thoughtful comments from the GSA board, advisory committee and the general public. I think everyone is getting excited about implementing the plan, pending board approval.”

The plan covers the entire Sonoma Valley subbasin, which is bounded on the west by the Sonoma Mountains and on the east by the Mayacamas Mountains. The 44,000-acre subbasin stretches from the San Pablo baylands northward, incorporating the city of Sonoma and the communities of Schellville, Buena Vista, El Verano, the Springs (Agua Caliente, Boyes Hot Springs, and Fetters Hot Springs), and Glen Ellen. It does not include Kenwood.

Sonoma Creek is the principal stream draining the subbasin.

The plan will set up a system of wells and other technology to monitor groundwater levels throughout the subbasin. The agency will work with other entities and regulatory agencies within the region and will develop a “portfolio of projects and management actions” to keep groundwater clean and available for future uses.

Planned projects to be implemented by 2025 are intended to raise groundwater levels 25 to 90 feet within the deep aquifer system, but uncertain drought conditions make accurate predictions difficult, if not impossible.

According to staff reports, the mid-range budget projections for the first five years total about $5.9 million, averaging $1.2 million annually. Potential capital project costs come to $8.6 million.

Currently, the six member agencies annually contribute funding for operations, outreach, and plan development. The Sonoma Valley GSA has applied for and received more than $2 million in funding for plan development and to address data gaps.

Grant funding through Proposition 68 and future state bond measures continues to be a critical source of revenue, particularly for closing data gaps and for project planning and implementation.

In addition, Sonoma Valley GSA has initiated a funding study to identify local financing options moving forward, including possible groundwater user fees.

Once the state receives the groundwater sustainability plan at the end of January 2022, there will be a 75-day public comment period. Although the state has up to two years to fine-tune and adopt the plan, Sonoma Valley’s GSA must start implementing the plan next year, with its first annual report due in April 2022.