Sonoma County Gazette, January 2016

Conflicting needs: drought, conservation, and inadequate housing….2015 has flown by so rapidly, we barely caught our breaths and now it’s gone. First and foremost, the year was marked by drought. Media filled us with daily messages to save water, exchange grass for cash, take shorter showers, turn off water when we brush, etc. It was even suggested that the dog be allowed to lick your dishes clean.

Contractor Conservation a great success….It worked! Each of Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA) major contractors had been assigned conservation targets by the State Water Board. Because of extraordinary citizen efforts, targets were met and even exceeded by a significant amount. But now water rates are going up to maintain water infrastructure and cover costs of water delivery to compensate for decreased use. (Contractors include Santa Rosa, Petaluma, North Marin, Sonoma, Valley of the Moon, Rohnert Park, Cotati, and Windsor.)

Housing shortage demands attention now….The affordable housing crisis has received frequent attention by the Press Democrat, builders, low income housing advocates and citizens. Since the economic crisis of 2008, there has been a dearth of new housing built in Sonoma County. However, the definition of ‘affordable’ by governmental agencies and builders provides no help for minimum wage workers who have an extremely difficult time finding units they can afford. (A small two-bedroom apartment can easily cost $1500 monthly, while those making minimum wage may take home less than $1600.) New housing starts are not doing much to address that need.

A recent Press Democrat article (12-6-15) entitled “After long lull, county homebuilding on rise” stated, “The increased activity came about mostly because home prices have returned to levels where builders can construct a house and make a profit, those in the industry said.” The article pointed out that the County median home sales price climbed 74% over lows in 2009. All the planned new growth will occur in areas obtaining their water from the Russian River, with about 1400 units in Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa, and Windsor that have either commenced building or will do so soon. (Article enumerates only 600 units for Rohnert Park, when in fact, a total of 5600 have already been approved.)

Where will water come from?  So where will all this water come from to serve new development? How can we be so barraged with media incessantly reminding us about the drought and the severe shortage of water? Darren Jenkins, Rohnert Park’s City Manager wrote the following in a recent column in “The Community Voice” in response to that very question.

City Manager Jenkins stated: “…. 20% of the water used in Rohnert Park is recycled water. Nearly all City parks and landscaped areas, as well as many of our schools, businesses, and Sonoma State University use recycled water for irrigation purposes…… After the drought in the mid-1970s, Warm Springs Dam was built creating Lake Sonoma which provides most of our water supply. Because Lake Sonoma was sized to provide flood relief, the lake is much larger than needed for water supply.  It reliably provides more than enough to those cities fortunate enough to be connected to it. In addition, our groundwater wells provide a small portion of our drinking water. Our supply levels of all three sources are near all-time highs.” (emphasis added)

In response, photographic evidence indicates that Rohnert Park regularly and consistently over-irrigated urban landscapes, causing partially treated wastewater (not all toxins are monitored and/or removed) to run off into drains in summer, when aquatic life and recreating humans are more vulnerable. Furthermore, Lake Sonoma’s size does not govern how much water Rohnert Park can obtain from it. Regarding ground water, Rohnert Park’s diminished withdrawals occurred partially because some house foundations were cracking from subsidence.

Biological Opinion will cut flows…..Sonoma County Water Agency may take numerous steps in the coming year to both increase water availability for its contractors and diminish summer flows for water users downstream. In Sept. 2008, National Marine Fisheries Service released Biological Opinion that required SCWA to produce Environmental Impact Report (EIR) recommending 44% decrease in Russian River flows as measured at the Hacienda Bridge. (Decreases apply to upper river as well, but that’s a different story.) That EIR has been in the works for many years now, but is due to come out this spring. Water savings in Lake Sonoma can then be available for contractor use.

SCWA requests 10,000 AF more…..Furthermore, SCWA plans to request additional 10,000 acre feet (AF) of water diversion allocation from the State Water Board. They are now entitled to 75,000 AF, but during the drought, contractors have used much less. Regarding Lake Mendocino, it is unknown how much lower river water comes from that source now since Eel River transfers have been greatly diminished, while about half of the water sold by SCWA to contractors, goes to out-of-Russian-River-Basin customers in Petaluma, Marin, and Sonoma Valley. At issue is whether SCWA is required (as it seems in Decision 1610 which governs river flows) to provide adequate flows for downstream water quality, supply, and recreation.

Lake Mendocino unreliable…..A recent study by SCWA analyzed long-range reliability of Lake Mendocino as a water supply source and made the strong case in the “Lake Mendocino Water Supply Reliability Evaluation Report” that validates our concerns (pages 17-18) about decreased water availability for lower river water users and current urban residents:

… Lake Mendocino’s water supply reliability has decreased in recent years….. Future growth projections (high and low) for the areas that rely on Lake Mendocino for their water supply indicate modest growth through 2045. Even with modest growth however, Lake Mendocino’s water supply reliability is expected to continue to further decline….. A scenario evaluating the effect of having no PVP diversion in the future shows that under that scenario, Lake Mendocino would go dry at some during a majority of years (over 60%). This would have significant impacts to downstream water users, ecosystems, and groundwater aquifers. Without water in Lake Mendocino to release downstream, river reaches could end up with little or no surface water flow. The loss of surface water flow would result in the loss of aquatic habitat for listed and native fish, impacts to riparian and wetland habitats, for flora and fauna, as well as loss of recreation opportunities in the reservoir and along the river. Water users dependent on surface water diversions would experience significant impacts to their ability to divert water. In addition, groundwater levels in the alluvial aquifer of the Russian River would decline, impacting production from many groundwater wells.” (PVP= Potter Valley Project)

This is a powerful statement. The water availability claimed in contractor General Plans supporting new growth appears to be “paper water” only and probably cannot be substantiated. And global warming, under which conditions may grow much worse, needs to be factored into situation also.