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Sonoma County supervisors endorse framework for overseeing groundwater

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Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday took their first substantive action to implement California’s landmark groundwater laws, voicing support for a three-pronged governance structure for local public entities that will have broad authority to regulate underground water supplies.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved forming one “sustainability agency” for each of the three basins in Sonoma County that fall under the new laws — the Santa Rosa Plain, Sonoma Valley and Petaluma Valley basins. The agencies must be in place by mid-2017.

“We need to be prepared,” said Supervisor James Gore. “The reality is that sustainability is not a choice.”

Other options included multiple agencies per basin, or one for the entire county.

Regulatory jurisdiction for the agencies could take in wells on residential and commercial properties, where officials would have authority to restrict pumping, assess fees to cover staff and infrastructure costs and fine users for depleting aquifers.

The bodies also could take proactive measures, ranging from land acquisition for water conservation projects to financing for water-saving infrastructure, including networks to distribute recycled water and catch stormwater.

“These agencies have a lot of authority,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the Sonoma County Water Agency. “They don’t have to do any of this, but the state wants to send the message to counties throughout California, to do as much as they can to ensure sustainability. Otherwise, the state will step in and it will be punitive.”

The county’s moves constitute its first major step to comply with legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014 amid the state’s historic drought. Meant to curb overpumping of underground supplies, the laws ended California’s pump-as-you-please stance on aquifers and brought it into line with most other Western states that long have regulated wells.

Overpumping has led to sinking land in the San Joaquin Valley and billions of dollars in damage to aquifers, roads and canals. In Sonoma County, the Sonoma Valley basin has been threatened by intrusion of saltwater underground.

County officials said that having one agency for each of Sonoma County’s three basins would ensure that those affected would retain more say in how groundwater in their area is regulated.

Cities and water suppliers that have overlapping jurisdiction in each area must also sign off on the plan. The 11 entities are expected to weigh in on the recommendations between now and Oct. 21.

Supervisors stressed the importance of working with cities and individual water agencies to form the groundwater agencies, then conducting robust public outreach throughout the county.

“The desire to have local control is a strong priority here,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “It’s important to achieve a tone where we don’t vilify water users. ... We don’t want to have residential urban users vilifying agriculture, or agriculture vilifying industry — there is always that temptation.”

Jasperse said agencies also will be able to appoint members from outside interest groups, such as environmental organizations or agriculture.

After the sustainability agencies are formed in 2017, officials will have roughly five years to develop a plan to maintain healthy groundwater levels. After that, each agency will have 20 years to achieve sustainability.

The move to regulate groundwater has drawn fire from the state’s powerful agricultural industry, including the California Farm Bureau, which opposed the legislation.

But supervisors said voluntary measures taken over the past decade to study and conserve groundwater in Sonoma County would help bridge the gap to mandatory measures in the future.

“I think we have built a strong foundation,” said Supervisor Efren Carrillo. “As a whole, in my mind, there is absolutely no question that groundwater plays an important role in building resiliency.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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