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News: 08/01/2016

Who will make decisions about our groundwater?

Groundwater Sustainability Agency formation underway to meet 2017 deadline

In less than a year, Sonoma Valley will have a new agency in place tasked with governing how groundwater is used and making sure that use is sustainable in the future. However, who will sit on this agency’s board and how the governance of the agency’s board will be constructed were the two biggest questions addressed at a June 30 workshop at Sonoma Charter School.

Although Sonoma Valley has had a voluntary groundwater management plan in place since 2007, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), passed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, requires all medium- and high-priority water basins to form Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) which would then develop groundwater sustainability plans.

Once Sonoma Valley’s GSA is formed – by deadline in June 2017 – it would have the authority, under state law, to conduct studies, register and monitor wells, set well spacing requirements, require extraction reporting, regulate extractions, implement capital projects and assess fees to cover costs. But that’s putting the cart before the horse. What the GSA will opt to do in order to manage groundwater will largely depend on its structure and its board members who will make its decisions.

Under SGMA, GSA-eligible agencies must supply or manage water or control land use. In the Sonoma Valley basin boundaries, running approximately from Dunbar Road all the way to San Pablo Bay, the GSA-eligible agencies are the City of Sonoma, the North Bay Water District, the Valley of the Moon Water District, the County of Sonoma, the Sonoma County Water Agency, and the Sonoma Resource Conservation District.

Per the law, a GSA must consider “all interests of all beneficial uses and users of groundwater,” including agriculture, domestic well uses, municipal water systems, native American tribes, local landowners, disadvantaged communities, business, and environmental use.

In order to meet all these requirements, the various GSA-eligible agencies have been working together to develop a draft GSA framework, which they presented at the June 30 meeting. They proposed that the local GSA board should be made up of one representative from each GSA-eligible agency, making six total. This representative must be elected by the board or council members of the GSA-eligible agency. There would be no term limits.

Additionally, a GSA Advisory Body will be created to advise the GSA Board on the development and implementation of the groundwater sustainability plan (to be completed by a 2022 deadline); and to advise the Board on the development of any regulations, fees, capital projects or programs connected to the sustainability plan. Officials envision this GSA Advisory Body to be made up of six at-large members appointed by each GSA-eligible agency and five interest-based members appointed by the GSA Board as a whole. These interest-based members will include representatives from an environmental organization with a presence in Sonoma Valley, the business community, agriculture, a disadvantaged community (Telemec or the Springs area, for example), and a rural residential well owner.

The application process for the Advisory Body is envisioned as a very formal process, said Jay Jasperse, director of Groundwater Management for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

At the meeting, Jasperse also addressed questions surrounding what happens if there is a tie vote on a GSA Board with only six members (“We will have to work until there’s a consensus”) and what will happen to the current groundwater management plan in Sonoma Valley once the GSA is in charge. Jasperse said they will be working to figure out how to merge the existing voluntary groundwater management plan with new sustainability plans once a GSA takes over. It’s important to note that the current groundwater management plan covers a larger area than the basin defined by SGMA (SGMA also overlooks surface water and its connection to groundwater), but there could be opportunities to add to the Sonoma Valley basin boundaries – maybe adding the Kenwood area – in the future, said Jasperse.

Members of the audience, made up mostly of well owners, environmental groups, members of the current Sonoma Valley groundwater Basin Advisory Panel, received the GSA proposal with generally positive feedback. Staff from the various GSA-eligible agencies will continue to gather public feedback through the end of the year and fine-tune their proposal before bringing it before their respective city councils and the Board of Supervisors this winter. For questions or comments, contact Ann DuBay at or 524-8378. Sign up to receive monthly updates at

SGMA simplified

What is SGMA?

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) is a statewide effort to address, among other problems, declining water tables, loss of groundwater storage, and sinking land, most notably in the Central Valley. In Sonoma Valley, some wells in the southern part of the valley are already experiencing saltwater intrusion.

SGMA took effect in 2015. Under SGMA, Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) must be formed by 2017. Each GSA – made up of eligible agencies that supply or manage water or control land use – will then be responsible for developing and completing a sustainability plan by the start of 2022. After the plans are adopted, the agencies have 20 years to achieve sustainability within the basin they manage.

What is “sustainable” groundwater management?

SGMA defines “sustainable management” as managing and using groundwater in a way that can be sustained over a long period of time.

Who does SGMA affect?

It has the potential to affect everyone within the boundaries of a priority basin. Sonoma County has 14 state-identified groundwater basins and sub-basins, but only three basins that require immediate attention: Santa Rosa Plain, Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley. The Sonoma Valley basin’s boundaries run approximately from Dunbar Road all the way to San Pablo Bay along the valley floor. Rocky uplands are not included in the basin boundaries, according to the state. SGMA requires these three basins to have a groundwater sustainability plan (developed by a GSA).

Does SGMA mean they will install monitors on my well?

Under state law, a GSA would have the authority to conduct studies, register and monitor wells, set well spacing requirements, require extraction reporting, regulate extractions, implement capital projects and assess fees to cover costs. They could do all of these things or some of these things. It’s up to the GSA to decide what measures are needed to bring groundwater use to a sustainable level.

As for well regulations, SGMA does provide an exemption for “de minimis” users, which is defined as those who use two acre-feet per year or less (about 651,702 gallons) for domestic purposes. The GSA cannot require metering of these users, but how they are incorporated into a sustainability plan or if they are still subject to fees will be up to the GSA to decide.

Does SGMA mean my water bill will go up?

That will be determined once the GSA has been formed. Under state law the GSA does retain the authority to impose fees on groundwater users to help cover the cost of management or projects. Whether fees are imposed and what the size of the fees is will be decided at a later date.

Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.

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