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Fees, budget give Sonoma Valley groundwater board headaches

By Christian Kallen

With funding for the current fiscal year set to expire at the end of June, the stakeholders of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (SVGSA) — and the other two groundwater sustainability agencies in the county — have been preoccupied with finding a path forward when the cash flow dries up. To do so, they’ve been working on a rate and fee study, crunching numbers and trends as they look for some local revenue to supplant the state and county support that has paid the bills for the first three years of the local GSAs.

But if it appeared the SVGSA was moving closer to finalizing their rates for the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, that illusion was punctured at the most recent meeting of the SVGSA board, which took place on April 25. One proposal was to require groundwater users to pay a proportional amount to their usage, but a big gap in data made that request problematic.

Consultant Jerry Bradshaw, senior engineer with the SCI Consulting Group, presented “Water Year 2021,” with estimated water consumption for a variety of uses, including vineyard, pasture, grain, and rural residential, all of which draw from largely unmetered wells. Those numbers showed that about half of the water use in Sonoma Valley came from groundwater extraction, 6,716 acre feet of the total 13,551 acre feet.

The catch is that only 16% of groundwater consumption is metered; the remaining 84% is based on estimates of “traditional demand” water use by industry. Thus, the prospect of applying fees in an equitable manner seemed, at the very least, subject to dispute.

“Why even come up with the data if it’s just going to be fodder for argument forever?” asked Supervisor David Rabbitt, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors’ representative of Sonoma Water, Sonoma County’s water agency. “At the same time I would contend that Sonoma County can’t have three groundwater basins with massively different pricing of water… there’s just no way that that’s going to be politically palatable.”

Vicki Mulas, the board member representing the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, advocated for getting rid of a wellhead fee option altogether, one proposed means of raising revenue. “Anybody that has a rural agriculture well, they’ve paid for the cost of the well, they pay to maintain the well. Why are we charging them a fee to have a well when they have no other form of water available to them?”

Board chair and Supervisor Susan Gorin reminded the board that they had a responsibility they could not avoid. “The state is dictating that we develop the plan, and somehow we have to come up with funding to manage the plan and provide the technical assistance.” But the longer the board talked about it, the more clear it became that a funding model would prove elusive, in that meeting at least. The Valley of the Moon Water District rep, Steve Rogers, said, “My personal opinion is that you need to keep the cost down. You need to start there: You need to get the cost down, and then you can start looking at how you’re going to do the fees to be equitable for everybody.”

Given the $1.1 million operating budget the GSA is looking at for next year, Bradshaw introduced a new funding option — a hybrid plan, which had only been discussed by staff for the previous several days, based on a fee structure from the Sacramento Central Groundwater Authority. All parcels in the county would be appraised a fee, whether or not they use groundwater; those who use groundwater would be charged based on estimates of their use (since most wells are not metered). By providing a ground-floor income from a parcel tax, the amount needed from collected charges to meet the budget would be less.

But with the actual management of the agency for the forthcoming year on the line, along with the many budgetary questions, Rabbitt said, “It’s probably no surprise that I think we’re way out in front of our skis, quite honestly. I think we have a year’s worth of policy decisions to be made … that the board has not really touched on yet.”

To help solve the immediate need of who would be operating the agency next fiscal year, Ann DuBay of Sonoma Water suggested extending the current contract of the GSAs with Sonoma Water, either for one year to up to three years, to continue their technical and outreach services at competitive rates. Eventually the board agreed to continuing to work with Sonoma Water for another year, with an option for a year after that, in the interests of keeping costs “cut to the bone,” as Gorin said — clearly anticipating the most difficult issue facing the agencies, that of rates and fees, and raising the funds to support their state-mandated operations and responsibilities.

DuBay also offered the possibility of consolidating the county’s three groundwater sustainability agencies, either through staff consolidation or, eventually, perhaps, by rewriting the structure of the three bodies. While complete consolidation is unlikely, now that the state has identified the three subbasins as each requiring their own groundwater sustainability plan (GSP), Rabbitt leaned toward “consolidating the administrative functions, so that we can bring down the overhead.”

The SVGSA’s citizen board met on May 10, before which its chair, Fred Allebach, warned, “Suffice it to say that the SVGSA is not anxious to regulate. We’ll see how far voluntary conservation gets us these first few years of the GSP. If the GSA board cuts the budget in half the first year because of skittishness over fees and perceived unfairness of fees, then this may affect compliance with the SGMA (the State Groundwater Management Act, which created the GSAs) and possibly lead to state intervention in the basin.”

The next board meeting is May 23, and the clock is still running to come up with a viable budget and management solution to go into place on July 1.