Water parley prompts supply questions

Valley residents packed Vintage House’s Stone Hall Monday evening with concerns over the impact of the drought and declining groundwater throughout the area.

The meeting, organized by 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin and the Sonoma County Water Agency, featured regional water experts and members of local agencies working to assuage dwindling water supply worries. It was the first of several town halls being held throughout the county to address water concerns.

Gorin, who said she had been planning the meeting before the severity of the drought was known, and intended to address the decline of Valley groundwater, noted that the drought has exacerbated the diminishing water supply issue and it is even more important that the community and its representatives work together to find solutions. “Sonoma Valley is facing water supply issues that need to be dealt with right now, proactively,” Gorin said.

Sonoma County Water Agency Chief Engineer Jay Jasperse explained that despite recent rains, California is in one of the worst drought situations in its history, with relatively dry weather starting in 2012. He said the area’s water supply, which comes a “long distance,” principally from the Russian River through pipelines from the Lake Sonoma reservoir, but also from groundwater, is increasingly vulnerable.

The water agency, Jasperse said, is working to increase the water supply by expanding the water portfolio, maximizing conservation and balancing surface water levels and groundwater levels.

Japserse, who noted the water agency is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the United States Geological Survey to better forecast weather patterns as they relate to managing water supply, said the Valley’s resources are more vulnerable than those in other regions and right now, they are out of balance.

A 2006 USGS study in Sonoma Valley showed declining groundwater supplies, particularly in deep aquifers in southern parts of the area. Some of these deep aquifers are declining at alarming rates, water agency hydrogeologist Marcus Trotta said Monday. When water in the aquifers falls below sea level, it becomes susceptible to salt water intrusion, Trotta explained, increasing the salinity of the supply and making it not potable.

In Sonoma Valley, Trotta said, 60 percent of the total water demand is met by groundwater. Of that 60 percent, 53 percent is used for irrigation and 27 percent is used for rural residential needs.

California is one of the only states in the country that does not regulate groundwater.

With so little rainfall this past year, Jasperse and Trotta said, and the water supply levels in SCWA-managed reservoirs at historic lows, the diminishing groundwater supply has become even more worrisome.

According to Jasperse, while research results differ on whether future years will be wetter or drier, all results indicate the temperature will get warmer due to global warming. The results, he said, all show that weather patterns will be more variable, making it even more difficult to prepare for inclement weather.

The increased weather variability will increase demand, Jasperse said, and drier soils will lessen the ability of the ground to recharge the groundwater supplies.

“We need new solutions to build resiliency and protect the ecosystem,” Trotta said. “Community involvement is essential.”

To get a better understanding, and to determine the scope of groundwater decline, Trotta said the water agency implemented a well monitoring program with volunteers who monitor more than 140 private wells in the area. Shallower wells, he said, seem to be stable over time, but some in the El Verano area were declining and even drying up.

The groundwater supply, Trotta said, is directly connected to the streams and wetlands, adding that maintaining surface water and creating areas where that water can sink into the ground and recharge the supply – especially in areas where that ability has been obstructed by housing and development – is of the utmost importance to the future supply.

A group of local water experts and stakeholders addressed how local agencies are working to solve the water crisis. Panelists included City of Sonoma engineer Dan Takasugi, North Bay Agricultural Alliance President Tito Sasaki, Valley of the Moon Water District General Manager Dan Muelrath, Sonoma Ecology Center biologist Caitlin Cornwall, Sonoma Resource Conservation District Project Manager Kevin Cullinen and Executive Director Kara Heckert, and Sonoma County Permit and Resource Department Director Tennis Wick.

Sasaki, who also serves as a member of the Sonoma Valley Basin Advisory Panel that works to solve groundwater management issues, said local farmers and vintners are conscious of conservation and are very concerned about the lessening water supply because they depend on the water for their livelihood. Growers use drip-irrigation to reduce water usage, and many are turning to recycled water when available to offset their groundwater use.

Both Muelrath and Takasugi said their agencies are working to detect leaks in the system to make it more efficient and notify water customers. The city and Valley of the Moon Water District are also offering rebates and rate incentives for conservation.

Cornwall said the Ecology Center is working on restoring native plants and vegetation to areas around local streams as part of groundwater recharge efforts.

Members of the audience had an opportunity ask questions of the panelists, with many wondering what could be done to reduce water usage among major users, including agriculture and hospitality industries in the Valley, and what projects are being implemented to bolster the supply.

In a response to a question about regulating groundwater, Jasperse said the state is looking at regulating the underground aquifers and the next year should bring many changes to how the supply is handled.

At the end of the meeting, Gorin encouraged all attendees to remember “the cheapest form of additional water supply is water conservation.”

The water agency will hold a Drought Drive-up event on Wednesday, April 23, from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Community members can come to the free event in the parking lot of Arnold Field near the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building and build a custom drought tool kit. For more information on the drought and water conservation, go to savingwaterpartnership.org.