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Petaluma considers managing groundwater alone

Petaluma is considering whether to go it alone in governing well use within city limits, an idea that could put it at odds with rural interests seeking a more regional approach to new regulations on groundwater use in the Petaluma valley.

The decision could make Petaluma the only jurisdiction in Sonoma County to go solo in overseeing the elements of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a contrast to the larger, multi-jurisdictional agencies under consideration for the Santa Rosa Plain and Sonoma Valley. Affected areas have until June 2017 to come up with a government agency that will implement the law, which will directly regulate well users for the first time in state history.

Representatives of some rural water districts expressed resistance to the idea of a Petaluma-based agency during a special workshop for the Petaluma City Council on Monday, arguing that a combined approach would mean lower costs to fund the agency’s future overhead.

Yet the city’s top public works official, Dan St. John, argued that Petaluma’s relatively minor day-to-day reliance on groundwater put it in a starkly different situation than the surrounding rural areas. A larger agency would not only be likely to cost more to set up and operate, the director of public works and utilities said, but could also effectively drag Petaluma into the day-to-day politics of groundwater that its own residents hardly use.

While a final decision is not expected for months, the debate over governance gives a sense of the kind of wrangling to come as the groundwork for SGMA – pronounced “Sigma” – takes effect.

“There’s a reason that the saying has lasted the test of time – whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting,” said Mayor David Glass.

The go-it-alone approach would essentially use the existing administration of the city of Petaluma as the framework for the so-called groundwater sustainability agency. The City Council would serve as the GSA’s board of directors, backed by an advisory committee representing various well users and interests across the city.

The regional approach would likely give Petaluma a seat on the board of a newly created agency that included representatives from Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Water District, the North Bay Water District and the Sonoma Resource Conservation District. All are legally eligible to participate in the governance of groundwater regulatory activities in the basin.

As currently proposed, the regional approach would require both the city and the county representatives to agree on certain votes. The system would essentially give each representative veto power, though the voting mechanism remains under development.

A city-based agency would still be tasked with a role in accomplishing the goals of a basin-wide sustainability plan, a regional strategy to protect groundwater supplies, St. John said. A study is currently underway to evaluate conditions in the Petaluma basin, and those findings will help determine the plan implemented in 2022.

“I think there’s this misnomer that a citywide GSA somehow puts us apart from everybody else,” said St. John, Petaluma’s director of public works and utilities. “Even if the city were to pursue that, there would be very close coordination.”

He estimated fewer than 10 private wells are in operation in Petaluma, and noted that the city also maintains wells for use in case of a supply emergency. The vast majority of the city’s drinking water is piped in from the Russian River.

By contrast, around 2,000 rural parcels in the Petaluma basin have at least one well on the property, said Sandi Potter, environmental review and comprehensive planning division manager for the Sonoma County Permit & Resource Management Department. A full count is expected as part of the current study of the Petaluma basin.

Signed into law in 2014, the SGMA came during a massive California drought and when well use in some areas was outpacing the rate at which water would percolate down to replenish underground supplies. The subsequent collapse of sponge-like aquifers was reported to cause damage to surface streets, as well as the possibility of permanent reductions to underground storage capacity.

The agencies can monitor most well users, assess fees, set use standards, embark on capital projects and other measures to maintain the health of their underground water supplies. Agencies are tasked with reaching sustainability for their local groundwater supplies within 20 years.

Bruce Abelli-Amen, a director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, argued that a combined approach would be most efficient. The rural areas would be left to form their own governing structure if Petaluma were to form its own.

“Our vision is one GSA for the basin. I think that makes the most sense,” he told the City Council. “We think that separation makes things less efficient. It will be two boards, and administrative costs associated with both.”

Yet a report by Petaluma city staff included early estimates that a city-based agency would be cheaper to operate, costing between $250,000 and $450,000 annually. The report estimated a basin-wide agency would cost between $450,000 and $825,000.

The City Council asked staff to prepare a more detailed report on the alternatives, which City Manager John Brown said could be up for discussion in December or January.

“I think if we were going to lean in a direction, it would be in the direction of establishing an agency in Petaluma, and letting a rural agency be established in addition to ours,” Brown told the council.

(Contact Eric Gneckow at eric.gneckow@arguscourier.com. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)