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Petaluma groundwater agency approves sustainability plan

The Petaluma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency Board of Directors on Wednesday approved its groundwater sustainability plan, marking a major milestone for the agency charged with ensuring sufficient water stores in south Sonoma County for generations to come.

The Petaluma area agency is one of three local entities established since 2015 to address the largely unregulated world of groundwater usage in California. The state-mandated agencies had their plans endorsed by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last month, and each was set to bring those plans to their respective boards this week for final local approval.

Now, the plans must be forwarded to the California Department of Water Resources for state-level approval before local officials can begin to implement their vision for ensuring groundwater basin sustainability through 2072.

“I think it was said earlier, this is the start of the beginning,” said Board Chair David Rabbitt, who also represents southern Sonoma County on the Board of Supervisors. “It’s an important step. But we’ll have many steps going forward.”

Since state law mandated the creation of groundwater agencies, and plans for sustainability in key groundwater basins throughout California, local appointed leaders have worked to gather and analyze water usage, population growth, weather and more in an effort to project groundwater levels and implement strategies to ensure sustainability within the next 20 years.

Perhaps the most controversial step won’t come until mid-2022, when local agencies are likely to implement fees for well water users who for generations have tapped underground water stores at no cost, save for the initial investment to drill the well.

There are about 5,800 wells in the 80,000-acre Santa Rosa basin, about 1,500 wells in the 44,000-acre Sonoma Valley basin and about 700 wells in the 46,000-acre Petaluma Valley basin.

Although the plans anticipate wetter years beginning in 2025 and stretching to 2050 before long-term drought sets in, potentially putting off politically risky decisions, residents who spoke at Wednesday’s meeting sought quicker, more drastic action.

One resident wanted to know how much pressure illegal immigration puts on groundwater reserves. Another pressed the board on the impact of cannabis proliferation in Petaluma’s rural outskirts.

Petaluma area farmer Ray Peterson, who has seen all of his 100-year-old wells along Gossage Avenue run dry, said he didn’t see that urgency reflected in the plan.

“I really don’t understand why one of the recommendations for this plan isn’t that we stop all development,” Peterson said during the Zoom meeting. “It’s obvious the water we have won’t sustain the population we have now.”

Water officials said most of the water used by Petaluma residents is imported from the Russian River, through the Santa Rosa Plain, meaning new development doesn’t necessarily impact local groundwater levels.

The officials have acknowledged, though, that there are sizable gaps in the data available in the Petaluma Valley basin, and acquiring that data is a key piece of the plan that was approved Wednesday.

For now, analysis and projections were based on the data available during a 50-year span stretching back to the 1970s and incorporating numerous drought cycles.

To date, the Petaluma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency has tapped $3.5 million in local and state funding for its work, and the agency estimates it will cost $1.1 million per year to implement the plan, not counting capital costs.

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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