Sonoma County Gazette, November 2009

Water Supply Issues Very Active Now…..

By Brenda Adelman

Agency to update water supply plans….
The Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) supplies water for eight prime contractors in Sonoma County and Marin.  SCWA’s Board of Directors is the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, who also serve as Directors of about 17 County Agencies.  This creates conflict in situations where adequate water supplies must be certified in order for new development to be approved.

The Urban Water Management Plan (UWMP) is a required planning document that is completed by SCWA every five years and must include information on projected water needs for all SCWA water customers, details on how the water will be supplied, and the constraints in doing so, descriptions of water facilities, river flows, and other conditions.

In December, 2006, the UWMP was completed a year late and only then under threat of a lawsuit. When the document was finally released, the information on water supply and demand projections was so inadequate that 15 groups associated with the Sonoma County Water Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging the document.  The Court ultimately ruled that proposed water diversion increases going from 75,000 acre feet a year (AFY) to 101,000 AFY had not demonstrated where additional water would come from and therefore had no basis in reality.

Contractors inflate water demand projections….
Yet contractors continue to base their growth plans on inflated numbers. For example, Santa Rosa’s “Water Supply Assessment” part of their new, about to be adopted General Plan, assumes that 101,000 AFY will be available.  Within the next 14 months contractors will have to develop new UWMP projections, yet SCWA staff has stated that urban contractors will not be included in their next UWMP document. Each of the incorporated cities will have to develop their own water plan, requiring that they limit growth projections to stay within current allocations.  In order to allow new growth over the next six years, they will have to implement much more conservation.

SCWA Changes Direction….
On September 15, 2009, the Board of Directors of SCWA voted to formally withdraw their 15 year old petition to the State Water Board for increased water rights and also shelved the 3000 page environmental impact report that supported the increase.  Instead the Agency promised to focus on the three main areas emphasized in the Biological Opinion (B.O.), including habitat conservation in Dry Creek and/or a major pipeline from Dry Creek to the Russian River allowing higher tributary flows downstream without harming fish swimming upstream, permanent changes to Decision 1610, (State law governing stream flows in the Russian River), and Estuary changes at the mouth to allow for improved nursery habitat conditions for threatened fish.  (The Biological Opinion had been released in September, 2008, and addresses negative impacts to threatened fish species by SCWA water delivery operations.)

SCWA is also being required to do a great deal of water quality monitoring in the Estuary back to Duncans Mills and will be designing a structure at the river’s mouth to keep the Estuary closed permanently every summer.  This is an experimental project required by the Biological Opinion.  There are added concerns about impacts to threatened harbor seals, also under Federal protection, as they always leave their haul out area near Jenner when the mouth is closed.  A proposed Marine Mammal Act “Incidental Take Permit” is due to be published any day now in the Federal Register, and concerned citizens should watch the SCWA website for further details.  There is about a 30 day comment period for those who want to express their concerns.

Water quality impacts resulting from permanently lowered summer flows are also a big issue. A large variety of algae blooms were evident this last summer, and the availability of excess nutrients combined with low flows and high temperatures were probably the cause.  We photographed Monte Rio Beach before and after one artificial river breaching, and pictures demonstrated that the water level was at least four feet higher than when the mouth is closed. Algae covered most of the beach as the water line dropped. The whole area from Monte Rio to the river mouth should be monitored to determine impacts from permanent closing.  The mouth is usually breached several times each summer to prevent flooding of low-lying structures in the Jenner area.

New SCWA Water Supply Strategies….
To compensate for their change in water delivery goals, SCWA developed twelve strategies for water supply including conservation, wastewater reuse, water quality protection, improve reliability of transmission system, address climate change impacts, renegotiate water supply contracts, and fulfill requirements of the Biological Opinion.  These strategies serve as policy statements, and detailed plans have not yet been developed.  But their new commitment is away from planning expensive, growth inducing pipeline infrastructure and to focus on habitat improvements, conservation, and better maintenance of current infrastructure.

Contractors were aware of planned changes for a long time, but they reacted very strongly and adversely when learning of the specific Board action to rescind the 15 year old water rights application, and demanded that action be delayed. Santa Rosa even filed a lawsuit attempting to delay the decision, but the court denied their request.  There were numerous vituperative exchanges between Water Agency staff and City staff and officials, but recently contractors seem to have toned down their battle with the Agency.

Contractors greatest concern had been over withdrawing the application for increased water rights, but now it has moved down their priority list from first place to third (in a list of five).   Their first priority is now appropriately to protect water quality along with current water rights allocations.  (Second is to address issue of the fishery and fulfill purposes of the Biological Opinion.)

Contractors demand transparency….
Finally, contractors have demanded more Agency transparency, feeling that SCWA has been unresponsive to them. A special committee was established that includes the Chair and Vice-chair of the Water Advisory Committee (contractors), and SCWA representatives.  Ironically, they will meet behind closed doors to address Agency transparency, public not allowed.

Finally, it was recently announced that Randy Poole, Chief Engineer and General Manager will retire by February, 2010, although he may stay on longer for the transition. At the same time, his dual positions will be split and filled by two different people.  The Agency is also planning a significant restructuring and many staff cuts.

This water saga is going to get very heated up in 2010.    Stay tuned……