Climate Watch: A drier future ahead

The Sonoma Ecology Center’s monthly column in the I-T explores ways we can help fight climate change here at home.|

In this series, we explore the global climate crisis from a number of perspectives, with a special emphasis on how it connects to our Valley and how we can make a difference.

Climate forecasts for our region clearly indicate that it’s going to be hotter here. How much hotter depends on how humans collectively manage our emissions over the next few years and beyond. Forecasts are not clear, however, if our region will get more or less annual rainfall. Even if we receive more, increased heat will evaporate moisture away and plants will use it faster. The net result is increased dryness in our region and Valley. Given this trend, the current drought could be mild compared to what lies ahead.

Therefore, every drop of water will be more and more precious here. Rain that falls in winter increasingly needs to be carefully managed. We will need to re-engineer our watersheds, our yards, our buildings, our farms, to value winter water and help it into the ground, where it can supply creeks, homes, gardens, forests, farms, and wetlands long into the dry season. This will require accepting some management and fees on pumped groundwater, promoting intentional flooding of fields to replenish groundwater, converting landscaping to native plants, capturing rain from roofs and pavement in tanks or dry wells, and other actions.

Sonoma Valley, like much of the state, already has a water deficit. We use more than we receive. Homes in developed areas of the Valley aren’t as directly affected, because they are supplied by a pipeline from the Russian River and its water infrastructure. But vineyards, parks, golf courses, some industry, and rural homes typically only use local groundwater. Urban users do too, as a backup source.

Groundwater pumping in Sonoma Valley leveled off in the early 1990s, but even so, the total amount of water stored underground has been shrinking since records began. Our pumping exceeds what is provided by annual rainfall, and that imbalance is forecast to worsen unless we change course. According to the annual report of the Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency, several areas of the Valley have wells where the water level drops lower and lower, each year, sometimes by 5 to 20 feet. This is unsustainable.

We have good data about where water comes from, and goes to, for the floor of Sonoma Valley, provided by the recently established Groundwater Sustainability Agency. For example, we know that agriculture uses about 60% of groundwater on the Valley floor. But because the agency doesn’t cover areas outside of the Valley’s bottomlands, we don’t know much about water used in the hills, where vines, large home landscapes, pools and other features can use substantial water. And keep in mind that premium winegrapes use less water than lower-value winegrapes, and substantially less than many other crops.

We in Sonoma Valley will still get plenty of water from the skies to have a good life here for people and nature, if we can invest in getting water into the ground during the short periods when it’s abundant. We have a long way to go, but it’s a premise so simple a child can understand it. We just need to take actions, especially higher in the watershed, in the hills. Thousands of small actions over 200 years have de-watered our Valley; fortunately, hundreds of modest actions now could re-water it.

Sonoma Ecology Center and our partners have many resources to help with this effort, from graywater to groundwater, and from home landscapes and larger land management to rainwater capture. Feel free to reach out to us and to explore information on our websites. The water future of Sonoma Valley, like so many things, is in our collective hands.

Richard Dale is the executive director of the Sonoma Ecology Center.

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