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Groundwater sustainability agency considers budget, fees for groundwater use

By Christian Kallen

The first five years of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainable Agency (SVGSA) comes to an end in June, and while it has met its initial goal of creating a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) for the valley, as required under the state’s mandate, now comes the hard part: making sure that the GSP is implemented and that it works.

Come July 1 the SVGSA will take on its mandated role as a regulatory body “that can manage groundwater using a variety of tools, including setting fees, requiring water use reporting, regulating how much groundwater is pumped, and monitoring wells.”

With that responsibility comes the imperative of creating a new funding structure — a budget with revenue and expenses to help implement the staterequired groundwater sustainability plan. With increasing concern about a third year of drought and little long-term prospects for improvement, on March 8, the SVGSA Advisory Council gave serious consideration to the agency’s proposed budget.

No action was required and none was taken, which is fortunate because there was not a quorum for the 12-member council. Both chair Fred Allebach and vice-chair Caitlin Cornwall were otherwise occupied, so the Sonoma Water Agency’s meeting facilitator Tim Parker ran the agenda.

Jerry Bradshaw, senior engineer with the SCI Consulting Group, outlined a proposed five-year budget cycle, including both projected revenue and expenses. The bottom line was an average annual implementation budget of $1.12 million, over half devoted to operations and projects. About 60 percent would come from projected GSA fees ($667,800) and 40 percent ($447,400) from anticipated, though by no means assured, grants.

Different rates are proposed for different classes of groundwater users: municipalities and service providers (like Valley of the Moon Water District); agriculture and other irrigation; commercial operations; rural residential; and urban wells. Most would be charged for estimated use, though the water districts are already calculating their pumping numbers.

To garner revenue from the services, Bradshaw presented two primary options: fees on the district’s ~3,000 wells, or taxes and assessments on all of the district’s 12,600 parcels.

Option A, the first of two presented, envisions regulator fees of from $95 to $160 per acre-foot, to be imposed on all groundwater users whether city utilities, management districts, farmers, businesses, or rural residents. (An acre-foot is how much water covers an acre a foot deep, about 326,000 gallons.) Given the expected resistance to metering private wells, the option included a proposal to bill rural residential users for a flat half-acre-foot use each year; other users would be charged on their metered use or estimates based on industry standards.

Another possibility for a fee-based charge would simply be to charge well owners “head fees” of between $220–$370 per well, which is straightforward but inevitably favors heavy groundwater users over light users, since a single fee is disproportionate to usage.

Option B would be a tax assessment, likely a parcel tax, on the 12,600 parcels in the valley. A range of $50–$90 per parcel was projected, but any increase in taxes requires a public vote, and passing a tax increase at the ballot box did not seem like a likely scenario in the current economy. It would also affect all parcels, not just those reliant on groundwater, which could make its passage even more difficult.

The response of the advisory council leaned toward Option A (fees based on usage).

“If I had to sell this to somebody, I’d want to say the groundwater users are going to pay the bulk of the fees,” said Greg Carr. He was not the only council member to raise concerns about how to “sell the fees.” Norman Gilroy offered his observation that the public benefit of groundwater management needed to be emphasized, since the alternative — seawater intrusion and diminished groundwater — were untenable.

Like the other council members, Jim Bundschu preferred the fee-based Option A, but called the top-end fee of $160 per acre foot “very expensive” and, speaking as a vineyard owner, said it might prove a disadvantage to Sonoma Valley farmers in the highly competitive vineyard business.

A couple of councilmembers overtly tried to channel what the absent chair, the always-analytical Fred Allebach, might have asked. Vicki Hill speculated he might have preferred an option that applied to all parcels, but acknowledged that the hurdle of voter approval might prove too high. Several voices raised the question of social equity and how any widely applied fees might adversely affect communities who are not large users of groundwater, another primary concern that Allebach has expressed.

The public will get a chance to evaluate and weigh in on the proposed groundwater fees in two community meetings, the first on March 29 from 5:30–7:30 p.m. The meeting will be virtual; go to https://sonomavalleygroundwater. org/ to register for the webinar or for additional information.