"Water Watch In Sonoma County: Executive Summary" published by "League of Women Voters of Sonoma County"
Over the next 20 years, Sonoma County is expected to grow from its current level of 471,000 to 600,000 residents. As the population grows, so will the demand for water.
Competition for water among residential, commercial and agricultural users will escalate. The habitats of fish and other wildlife will change. The already complex network of agencies charged with protecting water supply and quality will be challenged to work together more efficiently. The welfare of Sonoma County's future population, economy and biotic habitat depends on our response to the challenge now facing our citizens. We need to be informed, and we need to be watchful.
This report discusses the management of water and measures being taken to address the issue of supplying safe, adequate water, while protecting our aquatic habitats. Below are the essential conclusions in each of the five sections in this report.
Where Do We Get Our Water Supply?
The Russian River watershed provides surface water and groundwater for most of Sonoma County. Surface water is drawn from the Russian River through nearby collector wells. Groundwater is drawn from wells located all over the county that tap into the underground aquifer. This supply must serve urban and rural domestic needs, industry and agriculture, while protecting the habitat of fish, wildlife and other organisms.
When the supply of surface water decreases, groundwater, primarily from municipal wells, is drawn on more heavily. Overdraft occurs when more water is drawn from the aquifer than is returned to it. Overdraft is apparently occurring in some water-scarce areas of the county, where rural property owners are finding that the water levels in their wells have dropped. Some wells have even dried up, making deeper wells necessary. Recharge of the groundwater is affected by runoff conditions, such as development of open space, and climatic change.
Currently, California is only one of two states with no laws regulating groundwater. Any regulatory action occurs at local levels. Although the U.S. Geological Survey is now surveying certain areas of the county, there is no historical data about groundwater levels, demand, or recharge rates. Up to this point, Sonoma County has been hesitant to require data about the availability and capacity of water before approving new development in all areas.
How Is Our Water Supply Managed?
Federal, state and local water agencies operate under a variety of laws and regulations. Federal agencies have specific functions regarding the protection of fish, game, wildlife and aquatic habitats.
The California Water Department of Water Resources manages the water resources of the state and protects, restores, and enhances the natural and human environments.
The State and Regional Water Quality Control Boards enact regulations to protect the quality of our surface waters, issue permits for various discharge activities and monitor water for contaminants.
The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is the main provider of water to eight cities and five water districts through a water contract, which is under negotiation for its 12th amendment. The members of the Board of Supervisors serve as Directors of the Water Agency. This dual responsibility has advantages but also leads to potential conflicts of interest.
The regulations and purposes of the different agencies often conflict with each other and this leads to confusion and uncertainty over water policy.
How Do We Keep Water Safe for People, Plants and Animals?
The Federal Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act determine the overall quality of our water supply through a variety of regulations, including allowable contaminant levels. The state and regional agencies enforce those provisions and monitor for compliance.
All public water systems must continuously monitor water to meet the safe drinking water standards and report on the quality of the water supply. At times municipal systems discover contamination in their wells and are forced to shut them down, either periodically or permanently. There are no similar testing requirements for private well users. As a result, private users in certain areas have accidentally discovered contamination in their drinking water--sometimes years after the initial contamination.
Water may be contaminated through many sources--runoff from urban areas and agricultural land, leaking septic systems, industrial plants, inadequate wastewater treatment facilities, logging, agricultural practices, gravel mining, etc. Some of our citizens argue for more stringent standards to cover a variety of unregulated chemicals present in the water supply. The resources to increase testing, monitoring and enforcement may not be available.
A few neighboring communities have adopted the "precautionary principle," which holds that a substance should be proven safe before its use is authorized, rather than proof of harm after wide distribution.
How Can We Provide Enough Water for Future Needs?
The 2000 Urban Water Management Plan, developed by the Sonoma County Water Agency, forecasts that the county has enough water to meet the needs of its increasing population until the year 2020. Conditions have changed since that plan was developed. The Association of Bay Area Governments has increased the population projections, and a recent court decision decreased the amount of water available to the SCWA.
In response, the Water Agency has asked all of its customers to take action to reduce the demand for water. They must seek additional supplies, be more aggressive about conservation and develop projects using recycled water for municipal and agricultural purposes. The Water Agency has leverage over its own customers only, but everyone in the county should understand the need for conservation and reuse of water, and the benefits of exploring new technologies.
Residents are concerned that increased usage of groundwater to supplement surface water will increasingly affect water availability to rural residents. Groups have begun to lobby our county and cities to develop groundwater management plans to coordinate land use and water management.
How Do We Balance Our Water Needs?
Competing water interests have long been an issue in California. Competing values and complex legal requirements challenge us to address water supply needs for the future while protecting our environment.
Human impacts can be found on every major California river, resulting in reduced and impaired native fish populations. A critical challenge is to provide more balance in the uses of water to protect and restore native fish and wildlife. To meet this challenge, agencies often have conflicting approaches, resulting in confusion and uncertainty.
To deal with the problems that face us as Sonoma County citizens, we are beginning to educate ourselves about the issues and form groups to take action. We must recognize the limits of the supply of surface and ground water and learn about the links between land use, ecosystem protection and water. We must act to
Incorporate conservation and reuse strategies in our daily lives
Protect the quality of our drinking water
Preserve our essential fish, wildlife and aquatic habitats Most importantly, we must talk with our decision-makers and urge them to begin planning for more effective water management. Progress will come if governmental agencies, nonprofit organizations and ordinary citizens can work together.
You may download the PDF version of this complete study (42 pages, 284 KB).
This publication is available as a printed booklet for a donation of $7.00 per copy (including shipping and handling) from The League of Women Voters of Sonoma County, 100 E Street, Santa Rosa 95404.