Healdsburg council hears proposal for new Alexander Valley Water District

“We are facing a threat situation,” said Walter Keiser, adviser to the Russian River Property Owners Association.|

Organizers behind a proposed water district in the Alexander Valley put forward Monday their vision for a new entity that would seek to safeguard legal standing of agricultural landowners in the famed grape-growing region.

They made their presentation at the Healdsburg City Council’s regular meeting where they called for the formation of the Alexander Valley Water District. It would give valley property owners, many of them grape growers, a stronger legal foothold to protect their rights to draw on Russian River flows and connected groundwater.

“We are facing a threat situation,” said Walter Keiser, adviser to the Russian River Property Owners Association.

The move comes in response to a host of factors, such as the multi-year drought that has spurred state regulators in recent years to curtail water rights for thousands of water rights holders along the upper Russian River, forcing some to cut back on irrigation with surface water flows or turn to groundwater.

The state is taking an increasingly strong stance on groundwater regulation nine years after the passage of a state law meant to end the era of unchecked groundwater pumping.

Flows from the upper Russian River via the Potter Valley project have also come into question as PG&E seeks to abandon the aging hydroelectric project that diverts water from the Eel River into Lake Mendocino and to the Russian River.

Federal requirements also reserve a certain amount of water to ensure minimum flows for fish, cutting into available supplies for water rights holders downstream.

Healdsburg’s proximity to the proposed district and shared dependence on Russian River flows and groundwater were grounds for the presentation, Keiser said.

The district could support new infrastructure to monitor and protect water rights, said Mike Martini, executive director of Sonoma Alliance for Vineyards and the Environment. He’s a former mayor of Santa Rosa and part owner of Taft Street Winery. Martini and the alliance have been active on a host of issues affecting the wine industry including limits on winery events and land management regulations driven by endangered species and water quality concerns.

The proposed district would not include customers serviced by Healdsburg, nor would the city be formally involved with the creation of the new water district. The city would, however, be involved with issues related to Healdsburg’s water supply, according to a city staff report.

The presentation did not involve formal action from the City Council.

Keiser said “there are improvements in place that will cost money” after Council member Rod Edwards asked if property owners would have to pay for the administration of the program.

The district would be funded by involved property owners to cover administration costs and projects, according to Keiser.

The proposed boundary, which is in early stages, would likely mirror the existing Alexander Valley American Viticultural Area from north of Cloverdale to east of Healdsburg, Keiser said.

“I don’t want the city of Healdsburg surprised, so we want to keep the avenue of communication open as this project evolves,” Martini said.

Organizers have consulted with local conservation groups including CalTrout, Sonoma County Conservation Action and Russian Riverkeeper for the proposal, Martini said.

To restore the salmon and steelhead habitat, CalTrout as part of a larger coalition, has fought for the removal of the Scott and Cape Horn dams on the Eel River, a major source of water into the upper Russian River.

“What we don’t want to find is that the dams are removed and we don’t have a continued diversion downriver,” Keiser said. The Russian River Property Owners Association advocates for property owners in the Russian River Valley and tracks issues related to water usage, according to its website.

He added that wells in the proposed district would “very likely” require metering to better manage water.

In July, state regulators curtailed water rights to over 300 water rights holders in the Russian River watershed and in August, regulators curtailed an additional 1,500 water rights holders in the upper valley from diverting water.

With the river now replenished from winter rains, there are no curtailments in place as of Jan. 13, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. Still, the U.S. Drought Monitor said moderate drought persists across both Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Sawhney at jennifer.sawhney@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @sawhney_media.

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