Water is Essential for Life, Business and the Economy, But at What Cost and With What Regulations?
Of all societal needs, water tops the list. Water is not a commodity, but a common resource essential for life that we take for granted. While Northern California is blessed with a number of lakes, rivers and reservoirs that store and transfer this precious liquid for use in our farms, homes and businesses, its availability is unpredictable.
Today our water supply, and the hydro-electric power often linked with it, are in transition away from traditional sources to multiple alternatives. These changes are not always at a discount as claimed, but often at similar or higher prices, and come with more complex regulatory controls.
Our public water supply comes from wells (groundwater) and from rain and snowmelt carried by the Russian River, with a high percentage originating in the Potter Valley Project talked about by Dr. Janet Pauli in June. This resource is increasingly supplemented by bottled spring and purified water, flavored water beverages and casks provided by office water fountain vendors.
On the energy front, investor-owned utilities like PG&E are no longer a sole provider, now cities and counties can source electricity and natural gas from Community Choice Aggregators, such as Sonoma Clean Power and 19 other CCAs in California that serve more than 10 million customers, according to estimates. Solar, wind and renewable biomass alternatives are also on the rise. Home standby generators are gaining popularity as a precautionary backup system following disastrous wildfires and threats of power cutoffs.
The latest entry in the state’s regulatory water control quest is what are called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA), mandated by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that established a new structure for managing local California’s groundwater resources by local agencies.
This act required GSAs to be formed in the State’s high- and medium-priority basins and sub-basins by June 30, 2017. Over 260 GSAs in over 140 basins were formed by SGMA’s first planning milestone. However, as SGMA is rolled out and priorities and boundaries of some basins change, new GSAs will be formed, and existing GSAs may elect to reorganize, consolidate, or withdraw from managing in all or part of a basin. Startup costs for each GSA are about $2 million and could go higher in the future – or ultimately passed to consumers.
For basins that received a new high- or medium-priority designation in 2019, local GSAs overlying these basins will have two years from the date of reprioritization to either establish a GSA or submit alternative plans. According to the Water Code, a GSA has five years from the date of reprioritization (medium or high) to be managed under a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP). The deadline for the first GSPs is January 31, 2020, for basins subject to critical overlap conditions, and January 31, 2022, for all other high- and medium-priority basins.
The potential viability of GSAs is a mystery to me, from a management standpoint, because plans which commissioners may develop involve factors out of their control. Water releases from dams are controlled by the Army Corp of Engineers and the Sonoma County Water Agency. The prospects for raising the height of dams is up to the state, and state funding, and are still undergoing feasibility studies.
Even with a mountain of weather history data and scholarly climate forecast models, who can accurately predict rain and snowfall amounts to create a realistic GSP? Who can say with assurance when droughts will come eliminating the need to release too much water, as what happened just before a major dry spell. If water is put back down wells to recharge aquifers, will enough be left for human, crop and animal needs? There is already talk of higher water rates for agriculture irrigation.
Water is essential for life, as well as for the economic vitality of our region. I appeal to YOU to follow these issues and get involved at the city and county level when water-related topics are discussed. If we ignore these changes, we will have to live with the outcomes.
President, Sonoma County Alliance