Time to Take a Big Step Into Groundwater

Written By: Tim Tesconi
Published: November 30, 2014

If the grass is greener on the other side, you can bet their water bill is higher.” This will be painfully true soon. On January 1 the Sustainable Groundwater Manage-ment Act of 2014 will take effect. Under the new law, you will likely have to pay fees for having wells, to measure and report how much water you pump, get another bill for it, and to stop pumping after reaching a limit, or else you pay a hefty penalty.

The State Department of Water Resources classifies groundwater basins to high, medium, and low priorities. Santa Rosa Plain, Petaluma, and Sonoma Valley are medium. Alexander Valley/Healdsburg Area could be reclassified soon to medium from the current very low.

The new Act stipulates that all high and medium priority basins must have a local Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) by July 1, 2017; GSA must adopt a groundwater sustainability plan by January 31, 2022; and it must bring the basin to sustainable status by January 31, 2042. If a basin fails to do any one of them, the State Water Board will step in.

Our groundwater basins have been locally managed by stakeholder groups with Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) acting as the lead agency. The programs have been voluntary and non-regulatory as authorized by the Assembly Bill 3030. The newly mandated groundwater sustainability plan will be built on this foundation but a lot will change.
First, a GSA must be established with the power to assess fees, impose regulations and levy penalties. The Act sets the end goal of sustainability and major program parameters, but it leaves localities with a wide choice of details. For example, a GSA can be an existing agency, several agencies forming a joint powers authority (JPA) or a newly formed agency. It can take responsibility of one basin or a group of basins.
A possible form of GSA for Sonoma County is a JPA consisting of the County Permit & Resource Management Department (PRMD), SCWA, cities and water districts. It could be led by SCWA and oversee all the medium priority basins in the county. One of the strengths of SCWA is its ability to supply surface and recycled water to help make up for groundwater shortage.

Whatever form the GSA may take, it will have unprecedented power in shaping the future of our water supply in general, and groundwater in particular. The Act emphasizes local control and honors existing groundwater rights. However, the local control could be lost to a wider ideological pressure such as the public trust doctrine that recently trumped the Russian River frost protection regulation case. The existing groundwater rights may be intact in theory but the GSA would control how the rights are exercised.

Against these odds we could still reinforce local control and the existing priorities. One approach is to organize ourselves into an agricultural water district, take a seat on the JPA as a lawful political subdivision, and retain some control over the groundwater use in the district. Such a special district must be approved by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) and have the power to tax and regulate its constituents, all the ag water users in the basins. This is a notion that we normally detest. But the alternative is to be taxed and regulated by others while our voice may be conveyed only through PRMD.

Time is short as the GSA must be ready by 2017. We should start serious debate right now and seize the opportunity to regain the ground.

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