Sonoma County Gazette, September 2009

Water Battles heating up…..

By Brenda Adelman

Water Agency Changing Course…..
Much to the chagrin of Sonoma County water contractors, half of whom provide water delivery services outside the Russian River watershed, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) is finally changing course.

At the coming September 15th Board meeting (which will be over by the time you read this), Water Agency Directors (Supervisors) will probably drop their seventeen year quest for additional water rights that would allow them to divert an extra 26,000 acre feet a year (326,000 gallons per acre foot) from the Russian River.

This is a bombshell of a policy change and has been greeted with explosive fury by the City of Santa Rosa and the other contractors, who have resolved to file suit.  Yet, many water activists see this as a change in the right direction.

For the last several months, Water Agency personnel had been meeting with the cities to explain their new direction, which included shelving their recent 5000 page “Water Project Environmental Impact Report” (EIR) that addressed impacts from the increased water diversions as well as construction of an expensive pipeline to transport water from Lake Sonoma to the river (among other projects).

Dropping the quest for more water resulted partly from new requirements in the Biological Opinion, which had been released a year ago. Water Agency staff were concerned that contractors appeared to not entirely grasp the demands required by the Biological Opinion to protect endangered fish species and other significant changed circumstances that had evolved over the last few years.

In fact, just days before the City voted to file suit, the Water Agency had taken contractors (and a few public members, including yours truly) on a tour of Lake Sonoma (including the fish hatchery) and their Wohler diversion facility to demonstrate all the work they had been doing on behalf of the fish and also the new Collector #6, designed to improve water delivery to the contractors.

As an aside, we have heard occasional complaints that people are more important than fish and the latter are getting too much attention.  Yet, many believe that healthy fish are an indicator of a healthy watershed and visa versa.  People need a healthy watershed every bit as much as the fish do, and if you have one, you have the other.  Right now, our watershed is sick and getting sicker and the disappearing fish are not a good omen.

The reasons for the Agency’s change of direction are even more complicated than just the Biological Opinion.  The Board Transmittal indicated that the change was necessitated by, “…reduced flows into the Russian River from the Eel River, the issuance of new federal requirements that restrict the Agency’s ability to use the channel of Dry Creek to convey water from Warm Springs Dam to the Russian River, climate change, new strategies for managing demands for water and energy, and economic conditions that make it unlikely that the Agency’s water contractors would impose the water rates necessary to finance the project.”

In spite of all these well known circumstances, contractors still claimed to be taken by surprise by the SCWA Board’s proposed resolution on August 25th specifying the new direction and the formal shelving of the Water Project EIR.  So the Board of Directors gave contractors three additional weeks to study the proposal and comment on the twelve strategies to protect and sustain water resources.

New directions included increased conservation, wastewater reuse, aquifer storage and recovery, Dry Creek habitat enhancement, closing the river’s mouth each summer, permanently lowered flows, etc.  While we don’t support all of these, the dropping of increased water deliveries to contractors is a step in the right direction.

SCWA could lose some of their 75,000 AFY allotment….
Contractor’s discussed the situation at length at their monthly meeting on August 31st.  Their key question was, “What’s the hurry for this action?”  The SCWA responded with the list of deadlines they have to meet, including filing an application to begin the process of revising Decision 1610 (State Law on Russian River stream flows).

Apparently, the State Water Board had been pressuring the Water Agency to drop their application for increased water rights as part of the Decision 1610 application (required by Biological Opinion).  Water Agency staff had expressed concern to the contractors on numerous occasions that it was highly unlikely that they would be granted rights to an additional 26,000 AFY, and they could also lose part of their current allotment of 75,000 AFY.  This year, contractors only used 55,000 acre feet, due to very successful conservation programs, and the State Board is now indicating that they should live within these limits.

Three days after the contractors’ meeting, a regular Santa Rosa Board of Public Utilities meeting was scheduled.  Listed on the Agenda was notice of a joint meeting with the Santa Rosa City Council to discuss the current water supply situation.  Agency staff spoke for over an hour, and then requested legal council to give an opinion about the Agency’s proposed action.

I had never experienced a meeting where the City’s lawyer advised clients on their legal options IN OPEN SESSION.  The Council wondered who owned the water rights in Lake Sonoma, and the attorney responded that the Water Agency has power in this situation.  The City could sue based on contractual terms, but not on the actual water rights.  She also stated however, that the City determines the water deliveries necessary, and the right to plan for them, and the Water Agency can’t tell them how much water to request.

This is also the purpose for the Urban Water Management Plan, produced every five years, indicating the amount of water needed by the contractors, along with an analysis of how much is available.  Part of the new direction is to revise and update this document to include growth projections that would stay within the current water rights allotment (75,000 acre feet a year).   This would mean limiting growth, which is the main reason for the contractors’ protest, although, on the front page of the Press Democrat after their meeting about filing a lawsuit, they denied this was the case.

So the water saga continues….stay tuned for the next installment in October…..

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