Sonoma County coalition awarded $8 million grant for water conservation work

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A coalition of Sonoma County resource agencies has been awarded $8 million in federal funds to advance an ambitious series of conservation projects intended to improve water supply and quality and enhance wildlife habitat on local agricultural lands.

The efforts will take in vineyards and farmland and aim to reduce erosion, boost stream flows and groundwater and clean up the Russian River and its tributaries while restoring habitat for imperiled fish and wildlife species.

Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District is the lead agency and will contribute $14 million of the $15.8 million local match for the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant.

Most of the funding will go toward the purchase of conservation easements on farmland along key stream corridors and in areas where flood plains and groundwater basins can benefit.

One objective is to fortify the water supply for growers and wildlife in the face of drought and amid the uncertainty posed by climate change.

“I’m jazzed,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, who previously served for nearly two years as assistant chief of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the agency that awarded the funding.

Gore helped spearhead the yearlong effort to recruit partners for the venture and map out a new approach to watershed issues in the region.

The initiative has staked out ambitious goals, including the removal within 10 years of the Russian River from a list of water bodies considered “impaired” under the federal Clean Water Act. Sediment loads, water temperature and problematic bacteria all exceed federal standards on the river.

Within 15 years, the partnership aims to make groundwater supplies in the region sustainable, meaning long-term consumption does not outstrip supply. Creek flows also would be bolstered and protection of stream corridors strengthened.

“Sonoma County is one of the most innovative, action-oriented places,” Gore said, “and not just in terms of a lot of our initiatives, but specifically in terms of conservation. We have 30 or 40 groups working in the Russian River. Our big failing is a lack of convergence — that synthesis that brings us together and makes sure we’re working in the same direction.”

A key aspect of the five-year grant is using scientific data and extensive environmental monitoring to measure progress, he said.

More than 30 entities will be collaborating on the project, including the Gold Ridge and Sonoma resource conservation districts, the Sonoma County Water Agency and Pepperwood Dwight Center for Conservation Science.

“This grant recognizes the importance of agriculture to our economy and way of life,” Kara Heckert, executive director of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, said in a news release. “It also demonstrates that farming and natural resource protection are not mutually exclusive. Healthy agriculture land can help replenish groundwater aquifers and improve water quality.”

The grants come through a program created under the 2014 federal farm bill. The Sonoma County project was one of 265 proposals competing for $220 million in this round. Only 84 applications received funding, including six in California.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twit ter@MaryCallahanB.

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