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There is nothing more frightening for a landowner than turning on the tap and nothing comes out. Hardware problems are often the culprit. But what happens when the lack of water at the tap means that the well has run dry? In Sonoma County's third year of drought, this nightmare scenario seems a growing possibility to many residents and farmers.

Fortunately, Sonoma County is ahead of many areas in the state when it comes to learning about and managing groundwater. For example, places in the Central Valley have experienced more than 20 feet of subsidence (sinking land from groundwater depletion). In response, the Legislature and governor are considering legislation mandating more control over groundwater. Time will tell what new mandated requirements are coming our way.

In Sonoma County, a series of studies conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey has revealed that some significant problems exist in Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain is also a little out of balance. Less groundwater also means less water in creeks and streams because they are connected. The bottom line is that unless our water resources are proactively managed, existing problems will get worse and currently healthy areas will experience trouble.

Several years ago, the Sonoma County Water Agency began working with the USGS to determine if problems existed. The first two areas studied were Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. While major problems were not revealed in the Alexander Valley, in Sonoma Valley the USGS found areas experiencing declining groundwater levels and saline intrusion in the southern end of the valley.

In response to the study, the Water Agency board of directors convened the Sonoma Valley basin advisory panel comprised of stakeholders representing a wide range of interests, which developed a voluntary, non-regulatory groundwater management plan for the valley. The plan emphasizes using science-based information to promote reduced water use, well monitoring, enhancing groundwater recharge and increased use of recycled water. Since plan adoption five years ago, 140 wells are now being monitored, recycled water use is expanding to offset groundwater pumping, and several businesses and residents have been recognized for major conservation.

A similar panel has been created for the Santa Rosa Plain basin, which stretches from Cotati to Windsor and from Sebastopol to Bennett Valley. The Santa Rosa Plain basin advisory panel is developing a groundwater management plan with a goal to locally manage and protect groundwater resources through non-regulatory measures to support all beneficial uses, including human, agriculture and ecosystem in an environmentally sound, economical and equitable manner.

To provide a science-based framework for management, the USGS has developed a computer model for the Santa Rosa Plain basin, which couples surface water and groundwater to help predict trends in groundwater levels over a period of time based on changing water use and weather patterns.

Will a proactive groundwater management plan be enough to prevent wells and streams from running dry in 10, 20 or 50 years? Success of a voluntary plan is dependent on whether it's embraced by all types of groundwater users. For this reason, the panel is holding a series of meetings in May to update people on the Santa Rosa Plain plan. Come and find out what is happening underground — it could help prevent your worst nightmare from occurring.

<i>Jay Jasperse is chief engineer of the Sonoma County Water Agency. The first of the community forums on the Santa Rosa Plain Plan will be held Monday at the Sebastopol Community Center. Additional meetings will be held Wednesday at the Windsor library, May 21 at the Rohnert Park City Council chambers and May 28 at the Santa Rosa Public Utilities Office, 35 Stony Point Road. All meetings begin at 6 p.m.</i>

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