New Era on Tap

by Stett Holbrook
December 07, 2016

Sonoma and Napa counties respond differently to new groundwater law

Vineyard photo - ground water management
SEA CHANGE In the wake of California’s historic drought, the free-for-all use of groundwater is coming to an end as Napa and Sonoma counties work to implement a new state law that requires they monitor and regulate their water use.

Call it a tale of two counties. A new state law requires that local governments regulate groundwater for the first time.

Sonoma County has begun a lengthy process to create long-term sustainable groundwater management plans for its at-risk water basins. Napa County, by contrast, is taking an alternate route, as it argues its groundwater use is already sustainably managed.

While Sonoma County has been praised for its go-slow process, critics say Napa County is fast-tracking its plan in an effort to avoid substantive changes to water use dominated by the wine industry. But Napa County officials counter that a recently written groundwater analysis says that, in effect, while there are challenges, the county’s groundwater is sustainable and it has a plan to keep it that way. Approval of the plan comes before the Napa County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 13.

Up until last year, when the law went into effect, groundwater could generally be pumped with impunity. “It was in essence a race to the bottom,” says Michael Kiparsky, director of UC Berkeley School of Law’s Wheeler Water Institute.

But in the wake of the state’s unprecedented drought and widespread well failure in the Central Valley, Gov. Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014. The legislation requires groundwater management plans that avoid half a dozen “undesirable results,” such as lowering groundwater levels, degraded water quality, land subsidence and saltwater intrusion into groundwater.

The SGMA will usher in a new era for agricultural areas like Napa and Sonoma counties. Since agriculture consumes the greatest amount of groundwater in the state, the law represents a sea change for farmers who used to be able to pump water without concern for impacts on water supply.

In water basins designated medium- and high-priority by California’s Department of Water Resources, the state requires the creation of a groundwater management plan, a blueprint for managing groundwater over the long-term.

But rather than dictate how local governments manage their groundwater, the SGMA directs local agencies to create their own sustainability plans, lest the state impose one on them. To do this, local jurisdictions must form a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA). It’s these agencies’ responsibility to create and implement a plan.

Sonoma County has three medium-priority basins and is in the process of creating GSAs for each of them. The Sonoma County Water Agency, which is spearheading the county’s groundwater management plans, has reached out to about 30 organizations in response to the SGMA and has conducted some 20 public briefings on the process at various boards of supervisors and city council meetings around the county. The county has until 2017 to create its GSAs and until 2022 to submit groundwater sustainability plans (GSP).

Napa County has one medium-priority basin, the Napa Valley Sub-Basin, which runs along the valley floor from Calistoga to Napa. Because it believes its groundwater has been sustainably managed for the past 10 years, the Napa County Board of Supervisors is taking advantage of a loophole that allows it to avoid the lengthy public process required to create a GSA and GSP. The SGMA allows local jurisdictions to submit an alternative plan if they can prove their groundwater is being sustainably managed. Alternative plans must be submitted by Jan. 1, 2017.

Part of the rationale for Napa’s alternative plan is that the county has already conducted extensive work on groundwater sustainability before the SMGA came along, said Patrick Lowe, natural resources program manager with Napa County’s Department of Public Works. He pointed to the 16 meetings held by the county’s groundwater resources advisory committee between 2011 and 2014.

“We were already in a pretty good position,” Lowe says.

Napa County presents a test for the SGMA and state regulator’s ability to enforce it. “SGMA is monumental, path-breaking and game-changing,” says Kiparsky. “But it’s only as good as the backstop.”

The backstop is the state Water Resources Control Board. Part of a political tradeoff for the new regulatory regime is allowing local authorities to come up with their own plan, he says. It will be up to the the Department of Water Resources to vet Napa County’s plan. If the plan doesn’t meet sustainability standards, the state board could reject it and require the county to form a GSA and GSP.

That’s what Chris Malan would like to see. Malan, executive director of the Institute for Conservation Advocacy, Research and Education in Napa County, an environmental nonprofit group that focuses on water issues, calls the county’s pursuit of an alternative plan an “end run” around the SGMA.

In particular, she says the Napa Valley Sub-Basin shows signs of undesirable results, like subsidence and poor water quality, and says plans for monitoring are inadequate and based on poor well sampling. She says the alternative plan sidesteps the conversion of Napa Valley hillside woodlands into vineyards, a practice she says reduces critical groundwater recharge.

“This is the hallmark water issue of our time,” says Malan.

Geologist Jane Nielsen doesn’t think Napa’s plan will pass muster with the state. Nielsen is a California-licensed geologist who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey. She co-founded the Sebastopol Water Information Group and the Sonoma County Water Coalition. She represents the water coalition on the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Management Panel.

After reading Napa County’s sub-basin analysis, she said the groundwater monitoring program is “aspirational” and lacks sufficient enforcement to bring its goals and into reality.

She adds that the report provides a “very barebones” sketch of the kind of data that SGMA requires and there is no integration of the data sources.

“I would not be too optimistic that this program will be accepted as equivalent to a GSP,” she says

Nell Green Nylen, a senior research fellow at Berkeley’s Wheeler Water Institute, says it’s important to note that the SGMA is still a work in progress.

“I would think the state will take a hard look at [Napa County], but I don’t know how it will play out,” she says. “The devil is in the details.”