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How a long-dormant Laguna de Santa Rosa well could spare Petaluma dairies from drought

Sonoma County water officials plan to revive a long-dormant well in the Santa Rosa Plain, a move leaders say could be key to the survival of Petaluma’s storied dairy industry amid historic drought.

The $400,000 effort, approved quietly Tuesday during the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting, promises to inject new water into the county’s system as reserves dwindle and more ranchers turn to hauling water for livestock.

In Petaluma, four companies are already hauling enough water to account for nearly 1% of the city’s use, and with mandatory cuts looming in the coming weeks, the city, which is required to reduce consumption by 20%, has frozen any new water hauling accounts amid a growing backlog of requests.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt said the Laguna de Santa Rosa well could allow Petaluma to reopen its metered water program, giving a lifeline to area ranchers.

“If we don’t do this, I guarantee you we would lose, God knows, another half dozen dairies,” said Rabbitt, who has pushed to open the well for weeks. “It would really change the landscape. I think it’s important that we go to bat for them and look for solutions.”

Sonoma Water owns three wells in the Santa Rosa Plain, at Occidental Road, Sebastopol Road and Todd Road. The wells, installed in 1978 and dormant since about 2010, are meant to bolster water stores during drought or other water supply interruptions, according to county documents.

Although it’s not spelled out in reports related to the board action Tuesday, Rabbitt said he worked to broker a deal with water officials that would replace any water pulled from Petaluma meters for livestock with new well water, reducing Petaluma’s overall water saving burden.

Grant Davis, general manager with Sonoma Water, said the agreement would make up to 500,000 gallons of water per day available for use, which he said should be sufficient to meet livestock needs.

“We’re looking at the total scope and the urgency involved in meeting this demand,” Davis said in a phone interview Wednesday. “They’re literally culling herds right now and making decisions not to plant. You’ve got dairies and vibrant parts of our community that are desperate.”

Restarting just one well will cost nearly a half million dollars, and require construction of 300 feet of pipeline before it can begin feeding water into the Sonoma Water system, which serves more than 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties.

Petaluma Public Works and Utilities Director Jason Beatty said city officials are set to meet with Sonoma Water staff Thursday to review the changes, adding that Petaluma wants to support the agriculture community.

“We have questions about, ‘Do we need to set up more meters? Are we limited to haulers we currently have?’” Beatty said. “We’ll need to work with Sonoma Water on those details. It’s not something we’ve done before.”

County officials, though, felt this year’s water crisis, which has drawn comparison to the devastating 1976-77 drought, merited the novel approach.

Capacity at the region’s reservoirs is already below 2013-14 drought levels, with Lake Sonoma at 59.7% of capacity and Lake Mendocino holding just 42.1% of its target water supply as of Friday, according to Sonoma Water.

And no rain is expected to refill those coffers until October, setting the stage for months of water rationing and water hauling, some of which has already started.

Beatty said the current local water haulers – Clifton Water Trucking, Leras Water Trucks and Pardini Water Trucks – account for about 0.7% of the city’s overall water use. Petaluma also has standing agreements with Spaletta Ranch and Neil McIsaac & Son Dairy, Beatty said.

With Petaluma setting its sights on 20% cuts in water usage, those haulers have been prohibited from boosting the amount of water they pull from designated hydrant meters located throughout the city.

Officials also froze new metered accounts, creating a growing queue of 15 prospective water haulers as of Wednesday afternoon, although Beatty said some requests were from construction companies and related to dust control.

Petaluma is one of nine cities or water providers grappling with the need to reduce water consumption in the Russian River Watershed, a group that also includes Cotati, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, Forestville and Windsor.

Although each of the so-called contractors are required to meet a 20% reduction goal, Petaluma, with its metered water program and growing demand from dairies as farm ponds dry up, potentially faces a more difficult path toward savings.

“Part of my goal was to not have any one contractor carry a disproportionate burden of keeping animals alive,” said Rabbitt, whose south county district includes Petaluma.

Rabbitt, a former Petaluma City Council member and three-term county supervisor, said he anticipates the need for water hauling will increase as the dry summer months set in. Hauling he said, is expensive, making it a last resort for area farmers, many of whom have already worked to relocate animals or otherwise cull their herds to cut down on demand.

But with dairy farmers already hauling water, Rabbitt said he foresees a long, fraught summer.

“Just because I know the proximity to Two Rock – which is a notoriously fractured aquifer,” Rabbitt said, recounting its reputation as the canary in the coal mine for regional drought. “When Two Rock starts going dry, you know you’re in for severe drought. And that’s what happened again.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the current water haulers.

Tyler Silvy is editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. Reach him at tyler.silvy@arguscourier.com, 707-776-8458, or @tylersilvy on Twitter.

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