New oversight of groundwater taking shape in Sonoma County
Vickie Mulas, a partner in her family’s Sonoma Valley dairy and vineyard operations, is no friend of regulations.
“They’re kind of onerous, restrictive and costly,” said Mulas, stating her case bluntly, as farmers often do.
But Mulas, a member of a prominent local ranching family, relishes her role in California’s newest round of rule-making that will - in an unprecedented departure from past practice - put limits on how much water people can pump out of the ground.
She’s a board member on one of more than 100 new agencies statewide - including three in Sonoma County - being formed to implement a landmark California water law that will bring order to groundwater, the aqueous subterranean stores that collectively hold more than 10 times as much water as all the state’s surface reservoirs combined.
In the aftermath of a historic five-year drought that prompted wholesale overdrafting of Central Valley aquifers - triggering dramatic collapses in the landscape - California is replacing a largely hands-off approach to groundwater with a regulatory system that includes metering, monitoring and potentially limiting pumping, along with fees to pay for the regulatory process.
The new order is just starting to come into shape and will take several years to implement, with still-undefined costs, monitoring and limits that in Sonoma County will primarily fall on thousands of rural well owners, including residents and farmers.
The new legal landscape alone is uncharted for California.
County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the two governing agencies that will oversee groundwater in Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley, said the state is making a philosophical shift away from the timeworn notion of “sacrosanct” private water rights.
“The aquifer beneath your well is connected to your neighbor’s well,” he said.
For groundwater users in the 44,700-acre basin that supplies Sonoma Valley, the underground creep of salt water and dropping fresh water levels have long been concerns. Now, Mulas and other public and community representatives appointed to the region’s groundwater sustainability agency will have a formal stake in staving off those threats.
“I really feel good about all this,” Mulas said of her role. “You can’t complain about something if you are not involved.”
The local agencies - including a third covering the Santa Rosa Plain - are a product of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, midway through the drought.
Sustainability the goal
The complex law gives local agencies in 127 groundwater basins statewide until 2020 or 2022 to come up with plans for achieving sustainability within the ensuing 20 years.
In Sonoma County, the regulatory burden will fall largely on the owners of about 9,000 wells in the three groundwater basins that cover most of the county’s flat land. They are primarily rural residents and farmers, most with no alternative water source but the wells on their land.
Rural residents who use no more than 650,000 gallons of water a year are exempt from well-metering requirements but subject to demands for reporting water use and all other regulations. Fees may be assessed against all properties, including city residents supplied by water utilities.
The goal of the whole framework - sustainability - is another way to say long-term means balance: groundwater extraction must be matched by replenishment, like balancing a bank account with withdrawals and deposits. It also requires that no harm be done to groundwater quality, safeguarding the supplies from man-made pollution and other threats.
“You have to show that it’s going to be OK in the future,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the Sonoma County Water Agency.
California, with 39 million residents, has the nation’s most voracious appetite for water, withdrawing 38 billion gallons of surface and underground water a day. That’s the equivalent of nearly 1,000 gallons per person, or enough to drain Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, once every 40 days.
Excluding water reserved for the environment, agriculture is by far the biggest consumer, using about three times as much water as urban residents, businesses and services, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Groundwater fulfills more than one-third of California’s needs in normal years, with the balance coming from surface sources, and in drought years more than half the state’s water comes from wells.
During the five-year drought, Central Valley farmers fired up their pumps and drew about 9.5 cubic miles of groundwater from the region: enough to fill Lake Shasta seven times, according to a study by UCLA and the University of Houston.