I am sure many of you are following the progress of the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) project. I use progress, but that term doesn’t quite fit the path that the Groundwater Sustainability Plan(GSP) seems to be taking, and no disrespect is meant toward the GSA Board, Advisory Committee or staff that are diligently working toward a mandate put on Sonoma County by the State. They have spent months working on one controversial piece of the puzzle: who pays to develop the plan and what equitable formula can be adopted to allow for the next step: actually drafting and adopting the tactical plan to meet the water sustainability requirements of SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act). This 20-year plan must be completed by 2022 and must demonstrate how the Santa Rosa Plain groundwater basin will meet or exceed baseline sustainability by 2042.
I have some thoughts about why this step to developing a funding model is so arduous.
First, the State’s plan does not consider the differences between groundwater basins and those people or industries that use this precious resource. The SGMA was modeled after some of the most over drafted basins in the state that have more homogenous users. Large irrigation districts or single jurisdictional municipalities do not have varied goals and constituents. The Santa Rosa Plain GSA has four cities, the County of Sonoma and several small water districts within its boundaries. Added to the complexity, there are urban users who receive water from municipalities who also have wells; and data had to be trued up because most irrigation done in this basin is with reclaimed water, contradicting the maps and information that has informed the initial fee study plan. We have two other GSPs being developed in our County (Petaluma and Sonoma) and these GSA boards decided to fund the plan through self-assessment.
Second, and the one that I identify with the most, is the overall cost of developing the plan. The State of California has provided $1 million per basin to develop the GSP. The current budget suggests that $470,000 will be needed annually over the next five years to take the plan through adoption and to cover the administrative costs associated with managing the GSA. This is before a single dollar is spent on actually doing something to improve groundwater sustainability. Does this seem outrageously high to you? It does to me, but I have checked and this amount is not out of line with what other GSAs in the state are considering. Could the State’s cookie-cutter approach overreach, especially with basins such as the Santa Rosa Plain that shows very little overdraft?
Finally, and the wildcard in the list, is the citizens’ general distrust in government and each other. I am sure the GSA board didn’t expect the outcry from rural well owners about the requirement to register their wells and the estimated parcel fee of around $20. I attended the first public meeting held to discuss the Santa Rosa Plain GSA fee study and fee recommendations and I walked away with two major thoughts: people have lost their sense of chivalry and there is absolutely no trust in government. I was disappointed in the people who were disrespectful to the presenters tasked with this unpleasant job and disrespectful to their fellow neighbors who had the floor for their chance at public comment. This was surprising to me – I expect more from
a community that has been through so much together. However, the distrust in government was something I had expected.
I did some research and the trust in the federal government has dropped from a high in 1965 of over 70 percent to a low of 24 percent in 2017. Now, granted this decline identifies with our political leaders in Washington, but I am sure that there is a trickle-down effect to local government. There are several ideas about what has caused this distrust: recessions, more transparency in government spending, the ever-growing divide between political parties and “big government.” I surmise that all of these are in play as it relates to the Santa Rosa Plain GSA fee schedule. Constituents see these first steps as the tip of the iceberg and are not concerned about paying $20 this year, but $2000 in ten years with no results. Landowners also don’t want the government tracking their wells and coming onto their property. Rural residents have accepted the responsibility to manage and finance their well and septic systems as a tradeoff for autonomy.
How can we get past this impasse? How can we move forward with the development of the required plan and start doing something toward groundwater sustainability? Given that hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent by this one GSA to even figure out how to fund the GSP, I think the County and this group of cities need to find bridge funding to cover the cost of plan development and adoption to 2022. Then, when the plan has been implemented and when constituents can see positive strides in groundwater sustainability, through a 10-year fee structure, repay the bridge loan. Not only will this allow the process to get started, but I would hope it will encourage better spending and efficiency in the plan development.