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Sonoma County supervisors to serve on boards of three new groundwater agencies

Sonoma County is pressing forward with plans to regulate local groundwater use for the first time as officials move to establish three new agencies that will be charged with managing one of the area’s most critical resources.

The Board of Supervisors weighed in Tuesday on the efforts of county staff members to implement a 2014 state law mandating the creation of so-called groundwater sustainability agencies in certain areas by June 30. Based on the law’s requirements, the county is forming such agencies for three of its groundwater basins: the Santa Rosa Plain, the Petaluma Valley and the Sonoma Valley.

Each agency will be governed by a board with elected or appointed members from various entities eligible to participate under the law, called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The law empowers the groundwater agencies to, among other duties, conduct studies, regulate extraction and assess fees. California landowners have historically not been limited in their ability to extract the groundwater beneath their properties.

“It’s certainly never easy to form a new regulatory entity, especially one that eventually will meddle, quite frankly, in something that for decades - if not longer - has not been meddled in,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

Particularly given that the new agencies will be able to charge fees, Rabbitt acknowledged the agencies are not “something that everyone is jumping up and down” about.

Still, the state law gives county stakeholders an opportunity to collectively ensure they are making the most efficient use of the area’s vital groundwater supply, he said.

Rabbitt and Supervisor Susan Gorin were appointed Tuesday by Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the board chairwoman, to serve on the board of both the Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley groundwater agencies. Zane appointed herself and Supervisor Lynda Hopkins to serve on the board of the Santa Rosa Plain agency. Supervisors also serve as directors of the Sonoma County Water Agency, and that’s the role through which some of them will serve on the groundwater boards.

The boards also will include representatives of city governments and local water and resource conservation districts. Additionally, each board will have its own advisory body with a broader membership that includes environmental representatives and agricultural interests.

Gorin called the efforts to set up the groundwater regulatory system a “herculean effort” that required bringing together many different groups. Groundwater had long been thought of as a “God-given right” when the abundance of “straws in the land” was bound to stretch the resource to “finite capacities,” she said.

Hopkins, an organic farmer, acknowledged the enormity of the groundwater work and praised county officials for being able to bring together different groups, some of whom have deep concerns about the regulatory system.

“For rural well owners and farmers, this is a terrifying prospect,” Hopkins said. “There is a huge amount of concern, because … it’s been the wild west for groundwater since really the formation of California.”

Forming the three groundwater agencies also will require significant start-up costs: $1.4 million during the first year, according to the county. The exact share of those costs that will be borne by the county and the Water Agency has not yet been determined.

The groundwater agencies are required to form a sustainability plan for their basins by ?Jan. 31, 2022. The state act requires the implementation of those plans to bring basins to a sustainable level of groundwater use within 20 years.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com.

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