Sonoma Water to seek approval for hike in wholesale water rates

Rate hike needed to help repair and replace aging infrastructure and fulfill expanding mission would result in $2-$3 more a month for most consumer households, officials say.|

After enduring several years of severe drought and recently weeks of deluge, North Bay residents are now in for more water whiplash: a spike in wholesale rates that will raise monthly bills for hundreds of thousands of homes and business later this year.

Sonoma Water, the region’s main drinking water supplier, is set to seek approval for the rate hike next month. The increase would raise prices paid by local cities and other retail suppliers who serve more than 600,000 residents of Sonoma and northern Marin counties.

Sonoma Water General Manager Grant Davis said the proposed rate hike would be in the range of 10% and would mean consumer households pay $2 to $3 more each month once cities like Santa Rosa and other suppliers pass on increased costs.

The increases are needed, Davis and other Sonoma Water officials say, to pay for deferred repairs to aging infrastructure and as well as projects to safeguard the local water system against earthquakes and climate change.

Much of the supply infrastructure — aqueducts, pipes and other equipment — is 40 to 70 years old, which means in some cases that its near the end of its useful life, agency officials said.

“Not too different than owning an aging car,” Kent Gylfe, director of engineering, said Monday during a meeting of Sonoma County supervisors, who serve as board directors overseeing Sonoma Water. As maintenance needs increase, equipment failures and repairs are more common and costly.

Sonoma Water’s eight contractors — Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Sonoma, Cotati, Windsor and the North Marin, Marin Municipal and Valley of the Moon water districts — have for years enjoyed the lowest wholesale rates in the Bay Area, if not the state, according to Davis, the general manager.

Contractors pay, on average, about $1,170 per acre-foot for water from Sonoma Water, at least $500 less than the Santa Clara Valley Water District, according to Sonoma Water. Other districts charge even more. (An acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons, or about the amount of water needed to flood most of a football field one foot deep. It can supply the indoor and outdoor needs of three water-efficient households for a year.)

The low rates have been a source of pride, Davis said, but no longer, “because that maintenance that gets deferred, because of that end of life, that doesn’t get done.”

The agency was reluctant to raise rates when the region’s residents were overwhelmed by wildfire recovery and then the COVID pandemic, Davis said.

Then came the recent drought and the desperate need to conserve water, cutting usage and thus revenues paid into the water agency’s budget, further reducing available funds.

Though not as low as the two years from 2017 to 2019, when higher rainfall might have made less outdoor irrigation necessary, water sales revenue dropped from $50.6 million in 2020-21 to $43.6 million for 2022-23, as of Jan. 31.

The larger issue are the operations and maintenance needs, which account for about 60% of the agency budget. Annual rate hikes of 3% to 6% in recent years have failed to keep pace with those needs, officials said.

About 42% of Sonoma Water’s water collection and distribution infrastructure received the highest of five “probability of failure” ratings, while well over half of it is deemed to have less than 30% of its usable life remaining, according to internal analysis.

Most of the wholesale supply is drawn from six collector wells on the Russian River in Forestville and plus groundwater wells, all of it delivered through 88 miles of aqueduct and pipeline.

Sonoma Water also maintains more than 75 miles of engineered flood control channels, operates eight sanitation districts transferred from the county in 1995 and maintains the half-century-old Central Sonoma Watershed Project built in partnership with the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation District to reduce flooding risk.

The water agency’s board is scheduled to take up the full rate increase proposal at its April 18 meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan (she/her) at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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