Wine industry wants greater say in Sonoma County groundwater regulation

An arrangement that would give wine and farming interests an advisory role - and not a voting seat - on groundwater regulation has prompted pushback from agricultural representatives.|

Vintners and wine industry representatives on Tuesday pressed Sonoma County supervisors to give farming interests a greater say in how California’s new law governing groundwater is put into place on a local level.

As proposed by staff from Sonoma County Water Agency and county administrator’s office, those interests are set to hold an advisory role - but not voting power - on the agencies that will oversee the three local aquifers that fall under the state law. Environmentalists and rural residents who depend on wells for their water supply would also be represented on the advisory groups.

That arrangement, however, has riled representatives of the county’s wine industry and other agricultural interests, who see much at stake in how the new law is imposed. The governing agencies, which must be formed by ?June 30, will have the ability to register and monitor wells, restrict pumping and prevent drilling of new wells. Agencies would also have the ability to assess new fees and taxes.

“Nothing good for farmers in this county … can come from this monitoring,” Jim Bundschu, an owner of Gundlach Bundschu Winery in Sonoma, told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. “Agriculture needs a larger voice.”

Supervisors on Tuesday voiced support for a recommendation by the Water Agency to create three separate regulatory bodies - one each to oversee groundwater in the Santa Rosa Plain, Sonoma Valley and Petaluma Valley.

Under the Water Agency’s initial plan, cities, water districts, resource conservation districts and the county would appoint members from within their ranks to the three sustainability agencies. Advisory groups would offer recommendations to the agencies. But Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, said agriculture interests should have voting power.

“The bedrock of this is local control, so that’s what I’m pushing for … I don’t think we’re there yet,” Anderson said. “Anyone who understands local control, knows it starts at their well.”

The Sonoma County Winegrowers is also seeking voting power. Karissa Kruse, the organization’s president, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Tito Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower and board member on the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said farmers, vintners and rural residents should be appointed to the agencies because they use the largest portion of groundwater outside cities.

“Ag and rural residents depend on it,” Sasaki said. “The cities do not reflect our degree of groundwater dependence.”

Rural well users account for half of the groundwater usage in the Santa Rosa Plain, while agriculture accounts for 32 percent, according to United States Geological Survey data. In the Sonoma Valley basin, agriculture accounts for ?55 percent of groundwater usage, while rural residents consume 27 percent. The figures are similar for the Petaluma Valley basin.

Supervisors acknowledged the political jockeying among the agriculture sector and environmentalists when implementing new rules governing groundwater pumping and expressed concern about not giving interest groups voting power, but ultimately the board supported the Water Agency’s direction to include only public entities.

With public officials, “there is a direct accountability not only to the residential well owners, but also to the various interest groups from agriculture and beyond,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, the board chairman.

Jane Nielson, a geologist and a member of the advisory panel overseeing the Santa Rosa Plain, said she and other environmentalists are concerned about the amount of groundwater the agricultural sector uses. Still, farming representatives should play an active role in implementation of new law, signed in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown.

“If ag wants to be in the driver’s seat, they’re going to have to learn to worry about their use of water,” Nielson said. “Now winegrowers are going to have to prove that they’re sustainable.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 707-526-8503 or

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