The Kenwood Press
: 08/15/2016

Finding the ways that work

Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA)

VOTMA President Kathy Pons has become somewhat of an expert on local water issues after years of public service on the Sonoma Valley Basin Advisory Panel. Recently, an intern from the national Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) asked her to explain VOTMA’s views on California’s newest legislation that has begun the process of regulating the state’s unruly groundwater use laws in the face of diminishing water.

The Sonoma Valley Basin Advisory Panel had moved forward to create a voluntary groundwater management plan under CA Assembly Bill 3030. Now the trick is to have balanced leadership in the local Groundwater Sustainability Agency and to implement a plan for groundwater sustainability. EDF wants to support local agencies by seeking out and applying best management practices to maintain groundwater resources. They will develop a series of 10-15 case studies showing best management practices in targeted basins that will serve as a resource. They will be looking at management strategies and tools to address a number of issues including water quantity, quality, and surface water-groundwater interaction challenges. Layers of clay and sand that store water are drying up at alarming rates as water is pumped out and scientists predict that the earth can no longer store as much water as we are pulling out.

EDF’s slogan is “Finding the Ways that Work” and they are taking on the challenge of helping California meet sustainable thresholds by developing and sharing a “toolkit” of existing best management practices.

For more information about SGMA and how it affects Sonoma Valley, go to For more about EDF and western water go to

Have you ever wondered why California is the last western state to look at groundwater regulation? Ever since driving through the now very dry Owens Valley on the other side of the Sierras, I’ve asked myself that question. All that surface water went to Los Angeles and now we’re mining groundwater. According to the ThinkProgress Climate Project, precipitation creates only 70 million acre-feet of water flow throughout California during good years, but “370 million acre-feet worth of water rights have been given out in the last hundred years.” Where is this water coming from and how is it being used?

As surface water supplies dry up, more wells are sunk to bring up groundwater to irrigate farms, process produce, and supply towns. For years, farmers with high priority rights to surface water have grown cotton, tomatoes, melons, and corn in the Central Valley. Cannon Michael farms 10,500 acres near the town of Los Banos, but new wells have been pumping out so much water that subsidence is occurring and the nearby land is sinking, causing canals that bring water to his crops to sink. “Now, water is going to have to flow uphill,” said Mr. Michael in an interview for the New York Times on April 15, 2015. Everyone, including farmers in California, has finally concluded that it is time to look at groundwater management.

Water rights and water courts go back thousands of years to precedents set by Roman and Spanish law. The western U.S. was regulated early on by Spanish water laws that relied on seven principles: just title, prior use, need, legal right, intent, non-injury to third party, equity, and common good, according to Thomas Cech in Principles of Water Resources. This was true right up until the West was civilized. Then “prior appropriation” as established in Anglo common law was used to determine rights to water. The law then reads, “the first person to put the water to a beneficial (productive) use has the best legal right to continue to use the water. Those who put water to a beneficial use at a later time have a subordinate water right and generally will have to not use water if there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.” (NDSU Ag Law Text.)

So in California, the use of water was predetermined by the first user with no protections for equity or the common good. Although courts have imposed pumping restrictions in some areas, pumping groundwater from deep wells has been unrestricted in most of California until now and will continue to be unrestricted until SGMA policies and practices are adopted and proven by 2042. Many say that is too late. The local Groundwater Sustainability Agency needs to be formed by June 30, 2017, the Groundwater Sustainability Plan written by January 31, 2022 and sustainability proven in 20 years or by the year 2042.