Does the New County General Plan Hold Water?

by Veronica Jacobi and Stephen Fuller-Rowell – Sonoma County Water Coalition Co-Founders

Sonoma County residents want a General Plan that protects our quality of life, which depends on a reliable supply of clean water.

Water was a high priority for many who spoke at packed General Plan scoping meetings six years ago. If we want sound water management, it’s time to get active again. The upcoming Board of Supervisors hearings will be the last chance to demand a stronger Water Resources Element before the General Plan Update is approved.

What are the big issues?

Sonoma County needs a comprehensive water management plan. We cannot continue making decisions about the use of surface water from our rivers, or the groundwater from beneath our land, or on wastewater disposal and reuse, without considering the connections between all water.

Sonoma County’s groundwater recharge areas must be protected. Protection should extend to all land use polices and also be incorporated into building codes. Our aquifers are the biggest and least expensive place to store winter rainfall. We cannot continue paving over the groundwater recharge areas that fill our aquifers.

Groundwater levels are dropping in every area in Sonoma County that’s been studied. It’s time to seriously examine the combined impacts of Sonoma County’s 40,000 wells and stop wasting our money deepening wells, using more and more energy to pump water up from deeper and deeper levels.

We need policies to correct groundwater overdrafts. We cannot keep doing studies and writing reports. We must address the problem and limit groundwater withdrawals.

Threats to our water resources also come from outside the County, and the General Plan needs stronger language to control water exports. We cannot depend upon our State representatives to rescue us from every scheme to ship our water south or east.

We need to give higher priority to water conservation, efficiency and reuse, than to developing new water sources. Ratepayers will save money. More public education on water issues is needed to obtain water user buy-in on conservation programs. Nearly every day, another letter to the editor indicates that water conservation will be a hard sell if all the water we save is used for new construction, and not to benefit the environment. We must find ways to leave most of the water we save in the ground, rivers and streams.

We must also pay more attention to water quality, and no longer assume that someone else will take care of our wastes. Too many drugs, household chemicals and pesticides pass right through our wastewater treatment plants. Solutions such as modular package treatment plants will require costly removal or replacement when they reach the end of their intended service life, often at ratepayer expense. We need to establish a Citizens’ Advisory Committee to review wastewater issues, and publish periodic reports.

To protect our fresh water supplies and health, we must protect the land beside our rivers and creeks, which also support fish and wildlife. Our riparian corridors are an important source of groundwater recharge, especially where they support healthy native vegetation. We must realize that our habitat is just as fragile as that of the other creatures with whom we share this planet.

Most crucially, water use and global climate change are interconnected. Water pumping and sewage treatment are among the largest energy users, and thus increase the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Continued groundwater declines and ever-increasing water consumption will significantly increase energy consumption and these greenhouse gas emissions. We must therefore protect groundwater levels and conserve water to achieve our local and global greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.

We will not have another chance to update the County’s General Plan for fifteen to twenty years. In the meantime, we will have to live with what the Board of Supervisors approves. It’s up to all of us toattend these hearings and let the Supervisors know we want sound water management.


The proposed Water Resource Element will be the subject of a Board of Supervisors’ public hearing on Monday, August 27, in the Glaser Center at 547 Mendocino Avenue in Santa Rosa There will be two sessions, starting at 1:30 pm and resuming again at 6:00 pm.

The public hearing on the Open Space and Resource Conservation Element, including riparian protection for our rivers and creeks, will start on Wednesday, August 29, at 6:00 pm in the Glaser Center then resume on Thursday, August 30, at 1:30 pm in the Board of Supervisors’ Chambers at 575 Administration Drive in Santa Rosa.