May 2014, Newsletter: El Nino, the Drought and Groundwater


Anticipated El Nino storms may indicate wet winter to come ….

An irony of global warming is the unpredictability of weather patterns such as alternating hot and cold, wet and dry, windy and sultry, etc.  While last year we experienced the driest season of 120 years of record, a San Jose Mercury News article on May 8, 2014, stated, “Citing a huge mass of warm water that continues to move east toward South America, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration increased its probability for El Niño developing next winter to 78 percent, up from 66 percent last month, and 36 percent in November.”  The article then quoted a NOAA scientist as saying it is still too soon to tell how much rain we will get, since El Nino can take place at various intensities.    In the meantime…..

Governor Brown’s 2nd Executive Order on Drought Actions…

This Order predicts extreme drought conditions for this summer and contains twenty requirements aimed to accomplish the following:

  • Expedites movement of water to areas of need and provide drinking water supplies to areas with acute shortages,
  • Makes suggestions for stringent conservation, (without mentioning mandatory)
  • Calls for minimizing outdoor water irrigation with potable water, including sports fields, government facilities, parks, schools, etc.
  • Calls for cutbacks of water use in commercial establishments, (i.e. water by request only in restaurants)
  • Requires recipients of government funds to have conservation plans,
  • Calls for monitoring when and if fish migration occurs, securing of necessary migration flows, encourages habitat restoration, etc.
  • Water Board will adopt general waste discharge requirements to facilitate use of treated wastewater for irrigation to meet Dept. of Health Guidelines
  • Loosens restrictions for tree cutting near homes and other structures to minimize fire hazard.  For those living in tree rich areas, this can be substantial.
  • Water Board is directed to adopt emergency measures to prevent all waste of water, to prevent unreasonable diversions, to encourage water recycling and conservation, and to require curtailment of diversions when water not available.
  • Competitive bidding requirements on State water projects are rescinded under this emergency,
  • Certain Water Code requirements are rescinded as part of the implementation of this Order (spelled out in item #20)
  • The most egregious order, #19 calls for the suspension of environmental law (CEQA) for many requirements of this Order.  No details are provided, so it’s hard to know exactly what may be excluded from public review, but we feel this appears to be a cavalier removal of the rule of law.  (Please sign and mail enclosed target letter to Governor.)

While RRWPC does not take issue with many of the items on this list, we believe that nothing in the Order limits the true cause of water shortages: there are too many users who are using too much water. (Order can be viewed at Governor’s Website.

Groundwater aspects of drought: new report released….

In fulfillment of part of Governor Brown’s January Drought Order, the Department of Water Resources released a ground water report on April 30, 2014, that stated,  “Groundwater levels have decreased in nearly all areas of the State since spring 2013, and more notably since spring, 2010.”  And further, “Since spring 2008, groundwater levels have experienced all-time historic lows (for period of record) in most areas of the state and especially in the northern portion of the San Francisco Bay Hydrologic Region…..”

Several remedies give cause for concern…..

The January Order called for stepped up conservation, which we feel should be obligatory, but instead called for each individual to save 20% (of what?).  It called for suspending the environmental review process to allow actions to take place as quickly as possible and emphasized increased wastewater irrigation wherever possible. We are concerned that this Order is an opportunity for new development, sans environmental regulation.  Our reasoning follows.

  • The Governor’s decision to suspend environmental regulations during drought while still expecting to provide clean drinking water and preserve endangered species is hard to imagine if current circumstances are any indication. Without clear incentives to limit water use, assuring preservation of water quality may be a wishful dream.  Our local creeks and river are very degraded as a result of mismanagement of water resources resulting in too little flow, which may be lowered further as the summer progresses.  It’s hard to imagine how things will improve without regulatory action.
  • In regards to irrigation with tertiary wastewater, neither the Department of Health Services nor the Regional Board, whose regulations oversee wastewater irrigation practices, require adequate strategies to assure that wastewater runoff does not occur.  This runoff often carries toxins with it that have been applied to the land, not to mention unregulated chemicals and pharmaceuticals in wastewater.  This is particularly problematic in urban areas.
  • In regards to groundwater,  State law simply does not provide regulations for the control of aquifer draw down.  California is the only State in the United States that does not require reporting of groundwater use.  As was clearly pointed out at the Sebastopol Groundwater Meeting put on by Sonoma County Water Agency, any volunteer program is not going to help much.  Big vineyard operations can dig very deep wells and draw down water normally accessible to nearby residences WITH IMPUNITY.

Wastewater irrigation governed by Title 22 (DOHS Regulations)….

Department of Health Services (DOHS) deals with a relatively narrow range of water quality problems, mostly those that cause acute toxicity in humans and, in regards to wastewater irrigation, mostly ignores unregulated endocrine disrupting chemicals (such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals), chronic toxicity health impacts, and their impacts to streams, on wildlife, and aquatic life.  Irrigation with tertiary wastewater, especially when it runs off and carries pesticides and similar endocrine disrupting products, is harmful to creatures, humans, and inflicts greatest harm in summer when streams are most vulnerable. Regional Board relies too heavily on often inadequate self-monitoring reports.

At a recent workshop for wastewater irrigation supervisors, the presenter emphasized that no illness resulting from exposure to wastewater irrigation has ever been reported and that the former Utilities Director actually drank a cup of wastewater to demonstrate no harmful effect.  Yet most people believe that irrigated wastewater is potable water. Required signs are so small (4”x 8:”) and are hidden away in places where even if one is looking, they are hard to see.

There are more advanced wastewater treatments such as ozone technologies that would cause less concern, but in Sonoma County, tertiary is the best we have, and it is not drinkable.  Yet DOHS has certified  tertiary for many kinds of human contact, including allowing it on the veggies we eat and the pools we swim in.  They irrigate our kid’s parks and schools with tertiary wastewater and never consider whether poison pesticides and herbicides have been applied to the wet grass. Over 80,000 chemicals are on the market, and at least 1000 of them are identified endocrine disruptors (i.e., most pesticides) causing many kinds of chronic disease and developmental problems, and neither DOHS, or EPA regulates any but a few of them.

We urge the State to focus more on MANDATORY conservation, including tiered rates where heavy users pay a lot more, rather than expensive pipeline projects for the distribution of wastewater for summer irrigation use, which also requires large storage facilities, and complicated management and permitting oversight.  In our area, we are pleased that most urban wastewater is going to the Geysers for clean energy generation.  During drought, much less wastewater is stored, and current drought circumstances don’t merit large expenditures to build purple pipe infrastructure that will end up causing possible harm from toxic runoff to fish.

Water Agency’s voluntary conservation program simply not working…..

The goal of SCWA’s voluntary conservation effort has been to motivate people to cut 20% of their water use, and, if successful, should have resulted in 20% lower water sales to contractors.  But at least five of the eight prime contractors purchased MORE water in the 2013-2014 water year than in 2012-2013.  Taken as a whole, contractors purchased .07% less water in 2013-14 for nine months of current water year (July 1st to March 31st) than same months of the prior year.  


In looking at summer data for 2009, 2012, 2013, water sales were the lowest in 2009, the only year when mandatory conservation occurred.  2013 sales were lower that those in 2012, but not nearly as low as in 2009.   Many conservationists worry about their 20% water savings being passed on to new development.  It is essential that any approved new development be required to utilize every stringent measure to limit new water use, or not be approved at all.  And cities must demonstrate realistically where new water will come from.

In any case, the entire system may have already reached capacity, and it has not been demonstrated that ANY new growth can be accommodated with current supplies in drought periods. A recent report by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board (EDB Report) indicates that the values of residential and non-residential building permits in August, 2013 for Santa Rosa is: $46,902,514 and $22,284,007 respectively, and for Rohnert Park is $2,946,131 and $4,013,287 respectively.  (A recent Press Democrat article announced that 1645 new units had recently begun construction in Rohnert Park.)  Where is the water coming from for these units?  The Governor’s Order doesn’t address this issue.

Concerns about repeated irrigation runoff occurring year after year…..

Numerous urban landscape irrigators are repeatedly cited for multiple and even frequent incidents of irrigation runoff. There is no indication as to what action was taken to stop these violations of the Basin Plan and the State’s Recycled Water Policy, which have been going on since 2005.

For example, the Spreckles Community Center in Rohnert Park had 27 runoff incidents in 2010, 20 incidents in 2011, and 10 incidents in 2012. Redwood Creek Apartments, also in Rohnert Park, had 19 repeated spills in 2010, 18 in 2011, and 12 in 2012.  While these numbers appeared in annual reports, neither Santa Rosa nor the Regional Board, to the best of our knowledge, ever penalized anyone for multiple irrigation runoff incidents into impaired waterways.

Spill amounts not identified accurately…..

While the number of reported gallons spilled was generally not significant, there is no way to ascertain whether those numbers are accurate and to what extent flows may have involved discharge to a waterway. Irrigation takes place at night, visual inspections occur about once or twice a week or less, and it is not known what efforts were made to determine the length of time the spill had been taking place. It is also possible that visual inspections are cursory and spills may have occurred prior or subsequent to the inspection. Amounts of runoff identified on urban parcels are  often under ten gallons on small parcels that irrigate a million plus gallons per acre a season. The spill amount is suspiciously low and causes us to believe that these amounts are estimates based on a very brief surveillance of the immediate situation.

Newly required stream setback designations in new permits for irrigation applications that will protect water quality, should be applied to all permits. Furthermore, narrow vegetation strips between a sidewalk and street should not be irrigated at all because there is no way to prevent runoff in those areas, unless much safer drip irrigation is utilized.

Cities have complained that over regulation discourages uses of wastewater for irrigation. The Recycled Water Guide is vague on environmental protection while more focused on Title 22 requirements which generally address protection against pathogens while in pipelines. Monitoring requirements found in reclamation permits are vague enough to allow for weak enforcement which accommodates concerns about regulatory overload. There is a need for a monitoring program that identifies the true amount of runoff. There is a need for enforcement against repeat offenders, including turning off the irrigation spout! There is a need for specific agronomic application reporting and enforcement that indicates amount to be applied next to amount actually applied. When a irrigator applies one or two million gallons per acre, there needs to be full justification for that amount.  There are many gaps in this process that need to be tightened up.

(Please sign and mail target letter to State Board by May 23rd OR email by May 26th.)

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RRWPC needs your help more than ever….

Since we cut back to four mailers a year (from six), we have experienced a 30% drop in donations.  It has been suggested that we go back to six so that we can afford to continue our on-going updates on Russian River water and wastewater issues for the lower river.  We are not sure you want us to do that.  At the end of the year we will be dealing with a lengthy and complicated Fish Flow Project Environmental Review document and as we get up in years, it gets harder and harder to keep up fund raising AND tracking these complicated issues.

Many of you have not donated in awhile. Even if you can’t afford much, small donations are very appreciated. They let us know that you appreciate the work we are doing and want to keep receiving our mailers.  We are a small group and depend totally on mailers for our fiscal support.