Santa Rosa Ready To Sue For More Water

Mike McCoy, The Press Democrat
September 3, 2009

Santa Rosa’s City Council voted Thursday to file a lawsuit against the Sonoma County Water Agency to force the county’s water supplier to continue to pursue plans to draw more water from the Russian River.

“It about water rights,” said Mayor Susan Gorin, who said it’s the city’s intent to demand the agency pursue what it has promised to deliver for nearly 20 years.

The council’s unanimous decision came after the council met with the city’s Board of Public Utilities which recommended the suit in the wake of last week’s bombshell announcement by the water agency to drop plans to seek more water from Lake Sonoma.

Water Agency officials said they would not seek from the State Water Resources Board an expansion of its right to divert water from behind Warm Springs Dam into the Russian River from 75,000 to 101,000 acre-feet.

The 101,000 figure was established in 1990 and is what Santa Rosa, and other major agency contractors, including Rohnert Park, Petaluma and North Marin, have used to establish general plans that outline development patterns over a 20- to 30-year period.

“This isn’t about growth,” Gorin said of the lawsuit, but an effort to guarantee the city has the water to meet future needs.

Water agency staff members on Aug. 24 told county supervisors, who make up the board of the water agency, that it was abandoning its request because of dramatically rising estimates to build the infrastructure to deliver the water and to comply with increasing federal constraints to protect two species of endangered fish in Dry Creek.

Dry Creek is the connection that allows water to flow from Warm Springs Dam into the river.

Sonoma County supervisors have postponed a formal decision on the matter until Sept. 15 to give its more than a dozen contractors time to comment on the proposal. But Santa Rosa City Attorney Caroline Fowler said she plans to file the lawsuit before that date.

“We’re taking legal action to try to prevent them from withdrawing their petition,” she said.

For nearly three hours Tuesday, Santa Rosa’s council and the utilities board vented their anger at the agency which they said had never given any forewarning of its intention despite leading the charge for years to secure the extra 26,000 acre-feet.

“We were all stunned,” said Martha Lennihan, a private water rights attorney hired to represent Santa Rosa.

Both the council and utilities board were looking for what impacts the agency’s decision could have on Santa Rosa as well as other cities.

They expressed worries the agency could be seeking to rework an existing contract that obligates the agency to allocate the 75,000 acre-feet it has rights to among its dozen contractors.

The agency provides Russian River water to 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties.

But Gorin said the agency apparently has contracts with other small customers that cut into the 75,000 acre-feet guaranteed to its municipal customers.

Said Fowler, “Our concern is if they have sold more than 75,000 and they have only a right to 75,000 who is going to get shorted.”