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Guest Editorial: 01/15/2016

A synopsis of Sonoma Valley water for the average citizen (Part 1)

By Fred Allebach, Sonoma Sun columnist and member of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Management Program's Technical Advisory Committee (reprinted with permission of the Sonoma Valley Sun)

Sonoma Valley has two main sources of water. One is the Russian River via the Sonoma Aqueduct, constructed in 1963 and managed by the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA). The Sonoma County Water Agency supplies water to the Valley of the Moon Water District (VOMWD) and the City of Sonoma who in turn distribute it to their rate-paying constituents of approximately 34,000 people, the bulk of the Valley's population. The second source of water is groundwater, which provides water to rural residents and agriculture in the unincorporated county outside the City of Sonoma and VOMWD. The City and VOMWD also have wells that augment the water they buy from the SCWA. Approximately five percent of City water and 15 percent of VOMWD comes from groundwater.

Recycled water and surface water make up two other sources and dimensions to the Valley water picture.

Two sources

The Russian River is an entirely different watershed from Sonoma Creek. The Russian River empties into the Pacific Ocean, Sonoma Creek into San Francisco Bay. The bulk of municipal and residential water use in Sonoma Valley comes from water pumped uphill and into the Sonoma Creek watershed from the Russia River system (including Lake Mendocino, fed by the Eel River/ Potter Valley diversion, and Lake Sonoma fed by Dry Creek) under the SCWA's surface water rights. For groundwater supply the SCWA has three wells in the Santa Rosa Plain that provide less than five percent of total regional supply.

Groundwater is contained in Sonoma Valley in the form of shallow and deep aquifers. Shallow aquifers go to 200 feet; deep aquifers are 200 feet or more. Thick clay layers separate shallow and deep aquifers from each other.

Pieces of the pie

Of total Sonoma Valley water use, local groundwater makes up 59 percent, Russian River water 26 percent, local surface water eight percent and recycled water seven percent. Of Sonoma Valley groundwater use, agriculture makes up 55 percent, rural residential 27 percent, mutual water companies six percent, municipal five percent, irrigated turf four percent and commercial three percent.

Viticulture or wine grape growing make up the majority of Valley ag land use. In Sonoma Valley, 55 percent of the groundwater is used almost entirely to grow grapes and make wine.

Groundwater is being depleted in Sonoma Valley at a high rate, for example at a 37 percent increase from 1974 to 2000; an estimated 17,300 acre-feet of groundwater storage was lost during this time period. From 2000 to present, groundwater pumping and storage loss can be expected to have increased above the 1974 to 2000 numbers.

The problem

Given the above-noted rate and volume loss, Sonoma Valley has a groundwater problem and is on the cusp between a medium and high priority basin as defined by the California Department of Water Resources. Sonoma Valley has a medium 16.8 rating. A 21.0 rating is the threshold for a high-priority basin.

Sonoma Valley groundwater is a separate source from the Russian River, part of a different basin, a different watershed. However, should anything happen to interrupt Valley supply from the Sonoma Aqueduct, say an earthquake or other system failure, or from simple lack of water, Sonoma Valley is quite vulnerable. The Valley is at the end of the pipeline, the last user on the Russian River system. In an emergency, Valley groundwater could become the default source for 34,000 more water users. Thus, it would be wise for all citizens to know how Valley groundwater is used and sustained.


Rural residential groundwater users, i.e. well owners, are generally not an organized constituency. There are small water companies, like the Diamond A Mutual Water Company supplying 189 residents from four wells, for example. Ag groundwater interests are a constituency that is somewhat organized. It is hard to know what level of representation ag actually has in the absence of membership lists and total acreage covered. It would be reasonable to assume that the bulk of ag organization has to do with grape growing given that only five of the foods consumed in Sonoma County are grown here.

Both ag and rural residential domestic well owners pay no rates or fees for water itself, other than the cost of well installation, tank and pump equipment, electricity and maintenance. Ag users are also rural residential users themselves.


The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) took effect on Jan. 1, 2015. The law mandates that groundwater basins classed by the California Department of Water Resources as medium and high priority (based on criteria such as number of wells, percent of groundwater users, population etc.), must create Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) by June 30, 2017 and Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) by Jan. 31, 2022. Sustainable groundwater management must be reached by 2042. This is potentially a 32-year window until systemic changes are locked in. A legacy system of private, individual well owner control of a public, common pool resource is not going to change overnight.

If local agencies fail in their SGMA process, the state may step in and take over groundwater management at any point if GSA and GSP thresholds are not met. If groundwater sustainability has not been achieved by 2042, the state will take over management of the basin's groundwater at that time.

Interestingly, SGMA applies to basins only and not the entire watershed. Thus, Diamond A accesses groundwater, but since they are in the foothills and not in the basin proper, they will not be in the Valley GSA jurisdiction.

As the SGMA process unfolds, the major water players in the Valley and County hope to enact a cooperative regime between different user groups (i.e., ag, municipal, and rural residential) rather than get stuck in a pit of lawsuits as has happened, for example, in the Salinas River valley.

GSAs will have discretionary regulatory authority to conduct studies, register and monitor wells, set well spacing requirements, require reporting on amounts of water pumped, regulate amount of water pumped, implement capital projects, and assess fees to cover costs.

The GSAs in Sonoma County, while not required by SGMA, will also have stakeholder advisory panels. These panels or boards will not be active until after the GSAs are formed. The five GSA-eligible agencies in Sonoma Valley are: the city, the county, the Sonoma County Water Agency, VOMWD and the North Bay Water District (NBWD). The NBWD is playing to be Valley agriculture's rep at the GSA table. The NBWD is located south of Hwy 121; it was formed in 1963, has no facilities, and provides no services. The NBWD also extends into the Petaluma valley. These five agencies will have to finesse stakeholder differences and agree on plans to achieve groundwater sustainability.

Groundwater use and GSA jurisdiction in Sonoma Valley largely apply to ag and rural residential users, even though the city and the VOMWD, representing mostly municipal use, will make up two of the five GSA component agencies.


Owing to the drought and the associated issue of groundwater depletion, citizens are hearing a lot of water conservation messages. The bulk of Valley citizens' conservation awareness should be focused on the Russian River and its various constraints, like endangered species, reservoir context, Army Corps of Engineers flood control, the Eel River diversion dam in Potter Valley, development pressure, gravel mining, vineyard interests, grape frost protection, LAFCO, and expanded wine ag water district authority, etc.

A movie, The Russian River, All Rivers, has been produced which opens up many of the above Russian River system issues. Russian River water constraints do have clear, direct impacts on Sonoma Valley municipal water users.

The Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership is a regional water conservation program, of which the SCWA and all its contractors are members. This program has resulted in a 25 percent reduction in demand. The program is germane to, and is funded by, water sales from Russian River system water. Ratepayers to the Sonoma Valley urban suppliers (the city and VOMWD) fund the above conservation efforts. Given that there are no ratepayers to fund large-scale groundwater conservation efforts, a large group of water users are “off the grid” from a conservation standpoint.

There has been a Sonoma Valley Groundwater Management Program (SVGMP) in place since 2007 that brings together Valley stakeholders to voluntarily work to conserve groundwater. The SVGMP has been funded largely by the SCWA, and also the state, county, city, VOMWD and Sanitation District. Meetings are open to the public, schedule azccessible from the SCWA website and the work done to date will stand as a basis for the coming GSA and GSPs. You can read more at: If you want to find out about water and meet key people to ask questions, this is the place to be.

Given that it may be June 2017 until the Sonoma Valley GSA is up and running, that is a year and a half of SVGMP context and facts on the ground that can be created as a working GSA basis in the meantime. The onus is now on all actors and stakeholders to work in good faith to show that groundwater conservation is a priority. It will be perfectly obvious to the public if business as usual and/or a run on wells takes place instead of the needed actions to conserve.

Who gets heard?

If the Valley's groundwater budget continues to slide further into the red, obviously the current SVGMP process and the future GSA will not have worked. If the Sonoma basin were re-designated as a high priority basin, the GSA rules and parameters in place would not change.

The ecological health of the entire Sonoma Creek watershed is a primary indicator of whether or not sustainability is being reached by the GSA. Indictors such as water table, stream flow, fish populations, stream bank forest, etc., all need to be in good shape for groundwater sustainability to be shown as effective.

It's easy with all these ins and outs for the public to get mixed up and feel confused. We hear similar conservation messages but they apply to different groups with different water sources, sets of constraints and contexts. Citizens need to know who the user groups at stake are: rate paying Sonoma Valley Aqueduct users (City and VOMWD), and non-rate paying groundwater users (including domestic rural-residential and ag).

All user groups can be divided into property owners and renters. Renters are currently at the bottom of the stakeholder pile. Landowners have actual property at stake, yet there are 6,600 Sonoma Valley rental units compared to 10,600 owner-occupied units. Renters are paying a fair share and make up a fair proportion of the Valley populace. Renters deserve equitable consideration for their water use and their stake and water interests as citizens of the valley.

All the above groups are organized to varying degrees. The SVGMP Technical Advisory Committee and Basin Advisory Panel are attended by a small, regular group of interested stakeholders.

The people who show up at the SVGMP meetings are the ones that get heard. You, too, can show up! Whether simply showing up is enough to have any influence, well that depends on how much of a constituency is represented and/or if one has a compelling argument. A frank analysis of how policy decisions get made in general has to include observations on who has the real power.

[Editor's note: Due to space constraints, this article will continue with Part 2 in the next issue, where Allebach will review well permits and the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department.]

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