An Assessment of Water in Sonoma County

This op-ed on water was written by Don Bennett, one of the Sonoma County (and former Petaluma) Planning Commissioners.

Questions remain about what the Sonoma County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors/Directors of SCWA plan to do about reducing demands, increasing supply, and/or learning to live with what we have while protecting and restoring our rivers and groundwater. Right now, the draft Sonoma County General Plan/DEIR states that there isn’t enough water in the county to satisfy the needs for growth for the next 20 years; SCWA, however, says that there are no problems in future water supply. Stay tuned for public hearings on both the county’s and city’s final General Plans coming up soon.

Will the county and cities follow Petaluma’s lead in planning for zero increment in water demand for the next 20 years? Or will it be more smoke and mirrors for the next 20 years while the Russian and Eel Rivers and local groundwater suffer further damages?

David Keller
Bay Area Director, Friends of the Eel River.

Water is Becoming a Big Issue
Don Bennett, Argus Courier, Wednesday, Jun 27, 2007
We seem to be in a comparable situation here in Sonoma County. We don’t have enough water for all of the folks, the farms and the fishies. Meanwhile, there is a vast continent of water just off our western shore, but it is much too salty for us.

Desalination (or desalinization, depending upon your source) works, but the technology is still a bit iffy and pretty expensive. In this era of hang-on-to-your-pennies, expensive can be a major consideration.

It seems to me that if we can develop weapons technology that makes Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers look like bush leaguers, we could find a way to develop cost-efficient desalination plants to serve the multitude. It was, after all, the military that helped perfect recycling of both water and air so those nuclear subs could stay underwater for months at a time. They just didn’t have to do it with economy in mind.

(Parenthetically, it is perhaps worth noting that it was the military, back in the middle of the last century, that helped pioneer such food items as boned turkeys and hams, powdered milk, eggs, and fruit juice primarily for efficient storage on submarines.)

But here on dry land, we are not yet at the point where we can drink sea water and be able (or willing) to pay for it. So, we are left with a dilemma. We are growing, and we are going to continue to grow, and our water supply is not only not growing, but may be shrinking.

Then, this year, we have a mini-drought. Historically, we have had worse. The rainfall here in Petaluma this year is a sip below 16 inches. In 1976-77, we had successive years of 10 and six inches of rain, meaning thirsty cows and lawns and unflushed toilets.

The water situation in Sonoma County is complicated by the fact that our cities, for the most part, get water from the Sonoma County Water Agency. Those folks in the country, and that includes most of agriculture, get water from wells. The SCWA gets its water from river systems to the north of us. The SCWA is subject to a complex water bureaucracy in this state that can do things like telling the agency to curtail water delivery to protect the fish. Which is what they have just done.

The folks in the country, meanwhile, jealously protect water rights, and they protect those rights the way mama bear protects those cubs. Agriculture, and vineyards in particular, needs water. On the other hand, residents in many areas insist that the water tables are headed downhill and that the decline must be stopped. The problem is that there really is not any good data available to determine conclusively how bad the groundwater problem is, if indeed there is a problem.

The County of Sonoma, in its general plan process, is attempting to develop some sort of monitoring program to learn just what the groundwater situation is in various areas. The problem is a great many users fear that measurement will lead to removal of their water rights. During the general plan process, word got out (erroneously) that the county was going to require meters on rural wells. What had been planned as a quiet planning review of some minor issues turned into an angry shouting mob confronting planners. Meters, you see, could lead to users having to pay for water.

That one was a non-issue, but it is indicative of the sensitivity of the politics surrounding water use in this county. Agriculture, once the darling of the environmental community because ag keeps our land in open space, faces increasing challenges from these same environmentalists for a number of reasons, including usage of groundwater. And, understandably, people in agriculture are getting overly defensive because of those challengers.

If we have one more quasi-drought year, we should expect water to roar to the forefront of local issues. At the forefront in the cities, where the SCWA will not be able to provide enough water to keep both the lawns green and the kids bathed, and in the country, where our groundwater may not be sufficient to satisfy both thirsty vineyards and retirees’ swimming pools.

(Don Bennett, a business writer and consultant, has been involved with city planning issues dating back to the growth control plan of the early 1970s. A 12-year veteran of the Petaluma Planning Commission, he currently serves on the Sonoma County Planning Commission.)