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State groundwater management may require metered wells, additional fees

By Christian Kallen

The lengthy, multifaceted work of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency reached a benchmark in December 2021 when its board approved a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) and sent it off to the state for review and potential approval. The plan, including references and appendices, came in at a hefty 1,285 pages, though attentive readers can get the gist in the 28-page executive summary. The final plan is online at sonomavalleygroundwater.org, or available in hard copy at the Sonoma Valley Regional Library, 755 W. Napa St., Sonoma.

Probably the most notable part of the plan is the section dealing with potential groundwater user fees and permits — necessary steps to assure the plan is viable and effective.

A Groundwater Sustainability Plan is a 20-year blueprint to sustainable use of a groundwater basin, in this case the Sonoma Valley Subbasin. The focus on groundwater conservation was given teeth in 2014 with implementation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which empowered the state to manage groundwater policy in any district that fails to craft its own local plan. The SGMA holds out the possibility of imposing fees on groundwater accessed through private wells, a significant challenge to the traditional perception that what’s underground belongs to the owner.

In the Sonoma Valley, as the GSP makes clear, the threats to sustainability come from three primary sources: depletion of groundwater resources due to unchecked agriculture and other human usage; climate patterns that put at risk the replenishment and preservation of the groundwater reserves; and saltwater intrusion from San Pablo Bay into groundwater, a process that renders the water undrinkable and unsuitable for agriculture.

Among the findings of the Sonoma Valley agency’s research is that the “amount of groundwater stored in the aquifers has declined on average by about 900 acre-feet per year (AFY) during the drier climate conditions of the current water budget period of 2012–2018,” although groundwater levels for the majority of shallow aquifer monitoring wells are “generally stable.”

Will Sonoma Valley residents accept fees for groundwater use or access? A survey of Sonoma Valley well owners conducted early in 2021 showed local support for groundwater sustainability actions, said Andrea Rodriguez, a senior programs specialist at Sonoma Water. “The Sonoma Valley focus group understood and was concerned about groundwater and the impact of the drought and long-term groundwater use on their wells. They were interested in the GSA providing data about water use and long-term changes in groundwater levels. They were also interested in programs and projects that could make the basin more sustainable,” she said.

While the response rate of the 1,572 well owners was only 25%, that was still higher than the number of responses in the other two county water subbasins, Petaluma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.

All three of these regional groundwater sustainability agencies delivered their GSPs to the state Department of Water Resources (DWR) at the beginning of 2022. There’s an open period for public comment until March, after which the proposed plan for Sonoma Valley undergoes analysis by the state, which will issue a decision on the plan’s worth — “approved” or “incomplete” and in need of further research.

Ann DuBay, the GSA administrator for Sonoma Water, said the state DWR “has a department dedicated to implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and it’s these folks who are reviewing plans. They also provide technical assistance and, to date, have been very helpful when we’ve reached out with questions.” All of the state’s GSP records, and their current status, can be accessed at sgma.water.ca.gov.

DuBay said all three local GSPs are roughly at the same stage of undergoing state review, a process that may take up to two years. While the plans are under this extended review process, they are in effect. “In the meantime, the GSA will begin implementing the draft plan to ensure that the basin can reach its sustainability goals,” DuBay said.

Among those proposals are fees that can be applied for water use, including well access and usage (which would require the metering of wells) and perhaps added district fees to customers. Matt Fullner, managing director of Valley of the Moon Water District (VOMWD), said he expected some fees would be coming from the GSA in the near future. “The exact costs are not yet fully understood, but whatever they are, they will affect our groundwater cost and thus our Tier 1 rates.”

Like all water districts in the state, VOMWD is obligated to justify split rates based on actual cost of the water delivered, so water sourced from the Russian River-fed Sonoma Valley Aqueduct has a different cost than water sourced from wells in the Sonoma Valley itself.

The 2014 SGMA provides the legal authority to impose mandatory fees, and the Sonoma Valley GSA board will discuss fee options at its next two scheduled meetings, on Feb. 28 and March 28. A Rate and Fee Study community meeting is slated for March 29, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., via Zoom. A draft fee study, available for review, is expected to be presented at the April 25 meeting. GSA board meetings are on the fourth Monday of each month, from 4 to 6 p.m. For more information and to register for the community meeting, visit sonomavalleygroundwater. org.

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