Sonoma County well owners under strain as drought hits underground supplies
Like most of Sonoma County’s rural residents, my family knows exactly where our life-sustaining water comes from: deep in the ground below our feet.
We have an 80-foot well drilled decades ago on the edge of our acreage, drawing about three gallons of water a minute from the subterranean aquifer. A submersible pump fills a dark green 2,500-gallon storage tank connected to a booster pump that sends pressurized water uphill to our indoor and outdoor faucets.
Our water is clear, sweet-tasting soil-filtered rainfall that collects in cracks and gaps in fractured rocks and other underground deposits. By good fortune, our aquifer is free of substances that force some well owners to filter impurities from their water.
We pay no water bills, but must, over the years, occasionally repair or replace a pump or electrical parts.
And we are by no means unique. There are an estimated 35,000 to 40,000 well owners in Sonoma County, most of them residing beyond the reach of city and special district water systems fed largely by Sonoma Water, the county agency that serves more than 600,000 Sonoma and Marin county residents.
There are about 12,000 wells in the Santa Rosa Plain operated by five cities — Santa Rosa, Windsor, Rohnert Park, Cotati and Sebastopol — the water agency, homes, ranches and businesses. Public wells account for 15% of use; private wells 85%.
Private well owners are mostly untouched by the drought-prompted water conservation mandates facing city and suburban residents and the denial of surface water to some Russian River water rights holders.
Tables somewhat turned for well owners
But as the region’s two major reservoirs — Lake Sonoma northwest of Healdsburg and Lake Mendocino near Ukiah — recede in the wake of two rain-poor winters, the tables are somewhat turned.
Homes and businesses connected to the regional system are essentially guaranteed water when they turn their taps, but private well owners can only hope to get by until rain once again hits the ground — an uncomfortable situation in years like this.
As the dwindling reservoirs display rings of bare earth for all to see, well water levels are invisibly falling and threatening to go dry in some areas.
Well owners like me are making strategic choices about domestic and outdoor water use, hoping to avoid the expensive alternatives of running out: buying truckloads of water or digging deeper new wells.
“It’s like having your only bank account and you don’t know how much is in it, when it will run out or how much you have to put back into it,” said Martha, a Sebastopol-area resident with 106-foot well, said in response to a Press Democrat query of well owners. She declined to give her last name.
Linda Hoffman, a Rincon Valley resident, hopes to make it through the drought with a 70-year-old well that’s about 40 feet deep — extremely shallow by modern standards — that has run dry in past summers but always come back.
Neighbors digging new wells
“Most of our neighbors have already had to dig new wells,” she said. “We will cut back completely on irrigation. We time our usage to only have one thing going at a time. We basically try to baby it along as best we can.”
“I already bail the bathtub and spot water select plants by bucket,” said Theresa Melia of Graton, a west county hamlet in which everyone has a well.
“We flush only for poop,” she said, reminiscent of the 1970s Sonoma County drought mantra “if it’s yellow, let it mellow.”
For years, my family faced similar summertime restraints, when watering the garden drained our 85-gallon pressure tank. Our well refilled the tank in fairly short order, but it took installation of the storage tank, which holds several days worth of water, to eliminate the inconvenience.
We also depend on a 9,000-watt generator to start and run the booster pump during power outages, whereas urban residents get water even when they are in the dark.
Groundwater levels this spring were generally 5 to 15 feet lower than a year ago at monitored wells throughout the county’s groundwater basins, said Jay Jasperse, Sonoma Water chief engineer and director of groundwater management.
“We expect to see groundwater levels continue to drop through the summer,” he said, noting the levels typically decline during dry years and recover in normal rainfall years.
But the falling water levels “are a reminder of the challenges we face as the climate becomes drier and hotter,” Jasperse said.
Gary Mickelson, a partner in Jerry and Don’s Yager Pump & Well Service, said his company is getting three to five calls a week from people worried about their well water supply, in need of a storage tank or well driller and some are already out of water.