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News: 07/01/2018

Sonoma groundwater agency puts brakes on fee study

Since its formation in June 2017, the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) has been grappling with the complicated question of how to fund itself while it develops – and then implements – a sustainability plan for the Sonoma Valley Basin’s groundwater over the next 20 years.

At its June 25 meeting, the GSA board decided to put the brakes on a fee study that’s been underway since December 2017, in favor of asking its six member agencies to fund operations for one additional year.

All six members of the GSA – the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, the North Bay Water District, the City of Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon Water District, the County of Sonoma, and the Sonoma County Water Agency – pledged funds for the first two years of the GSA’s operation, with a promise of repayment. The second fiscal year ends in June 2019.

Some of the GSA directors, like David Rabbitt, representing the Sonoma County Water Agency, felt a fee study, without having a tangible project in the works so voters could see what they were paying for, was premature. Director Vicki Mulas, representing the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, was also skeptical about spending money to produce a lot of “white paper.”

Staff will return to the GSA board at its August meeting with details as to what the year-three contributions for each member agency would be. The GSA recently received grant money from state’s Department of Water Resources (DWR) so the total contributions for each member could be lower than for the previous year.

There are three alternative funding options the board plans to resume studying at a later date.

Seemingly, the most favored option among the GSA directors is a parcel tax (estimated in the $25 range) levied for all parcels that fall within the boundaries of the 70-square-mile Sonoma Valley groundwater basin, which runs from east of Slattery Road in Glen Ellen south to San Pablo Bay. The basin does not currently include Kenwood or Oakmont.

Several of the board directors said they viewed this as the most equitable option, but also admitted it would be the most complicated politically. First, it could cost as much at $650,000 to put on the ballot and, as a tax, would require a 2/3 majority approval by voters.

Another option on the table is a “categorical benefit fee,” which basically categorizes groundwater users and asks them to share the costs. For example, if residential users have been found to use 50 percent of the total groundwater extracted annually, at a price of $250,000, all residential users would be asked to share that cost. Example user categories might be municipal, residential, and agricultural.

The third option is a “proportional benefit fee” which would be a fee charged to parcel owners based on a combination of land use and parcel size. This third option would require more regulation of “de minimis” users. De minimis users are defined as those who use two-acre feet or less per year for domestic purposes (an average suburban family household is generally assumed to use one acre-foot annually). In order to charge a fee based on proportional use, de minimis wells would need to be regulated in some fashion, for example a well registration program.

Also discussed at the meeting was the state’s reclassification of the Sonoma Valley groundwater basin from a “medium” to a “high” priority basin. While in practice, there will be no difference in requirements and deadlines, it does show a discrepancy in the data used by DWR versus Sonoma County’s data on its groundwater extraction. The state’s usage estimates for parcels are “way high,” Plan Manager Jay Jasperse told the board. Jasperse said staff will continue to work with the state to bring those numbers closer together. A public comment period on the reclassification is open through July 18. The draft basin reprioritization document will be finalized in November.

The Sonoma Valley GSA will meet again on Aug. 27, 4-6 p.m., at the Valley of the Moon Water District, 19039 Bay St., Sonoma.

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

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