Vickie Mulas, a partner in her family’s Sonoma Valley dairy and vineyard operations, is no friend of regulations.
“They’re kind of onerous, restrictive and costly,” said Mulas, stating her case bluntly, as farmers often do.
But Mulas, a member of a prominent local ranching family, relishes her role in California’s newest round of rule-making that will — in an unprecedented departure from past practice — put limits on how much water people can pump out of the ground.
She’s a board member on one of more than 100 new agencies statewide — including three in Sonoma County — being formed to implement a landmark California water law that will bring order to groundwater, the aqueous subterranean stores that collectively hold more than 10 times as much water as all the state’s surface reservoirs combined.
In the aftermath of a historic five-year drought that prompted wholesale overdrafting of Central Valley aquifers — triggering dramatic collapses in the landscape — California is replacing a largely hands-off approach to groundwater with a regulatory system that includes metering, monitoring and potentially limiting pumping, along with fees to pay for the regulatory process.
The new order is just starting to come into shape and will take several years to implement, with still-undefined costs, monitoring and limits that in Sonoma County will primarily fall on thousands of rural well owners, including residents and farmers.
The new legal landscape alone is uncharted for California.
County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the two governing agencies that will oversee groundwater in Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley, said the state is making a philosophical shift away from the timeworn notion of “sacrosanct” private water rights.
“The aquifer beneath your well is connected to your neighbor’s well,” he said.
For groundwater users in the 44,700-acre basin that supplies Sonoma Valley, the underground creep of salt water and dropping fresh water levels have long been concerns. Now, Mulas and other public and community representatives appointed to the region’s groundwater sustainability agency will have a formal stake in staving off those threats.
“I really feel good about all this,” Mulas said of her role. “You can’t complain about something if you are not involved.”
The local agencies — including a third covering the Santa Rosa Plain — are a product of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014, midway through the drought.
Sustainability the goal
The complex law gives local agencies in 127 groundwater basins statewide until 2020 or 2022 to come up with plans for achieving sustainability within the ensuing 20 years.
In Sonoma County, the regulatory burden will fall largely on the owners of about 9,000 wells in the three groundwater basins that cover most of the county’s flat land. They are primarily rural residents and farmers, most with no alternative water source but the wells on their land.
Rural residents who use no more than 650,000 gallons of water a year are exempt from well metering requirements but subject to demands for reporting water use and all other regulations. Fees may be assessed against all properties, including city residents supplied by water utilities.
The goal of the whole framework — sustainability — is another way to say long-term means balance: groundwater extraction must be matched by replenishment, like balancing a bank account with withdrawals and deposits. It also requires that no harm be done to groundwater quality, safeguarding the supplies from man-made pollution and other threats.
“You have to show that it’s going to be okay in the future,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the Sonoma County Water Agency.
California, with 39 million residents, has the nation’s most voracious appetite for water, withdrawing 38 billion gallons of surface and underground water a day. That’s the equivalent of nearly 1,000 gallons per person, or enough to drain Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, once every 40 days.
Excluding water reserved for the environment, agriculture is by far the biggest consumer, using about three times as much water as urban residents, businesses and services, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Groundwater fulfills more than one-third of California’s needs in normal years, with the balance coming from surface sources, and in drought years more than half the state’s water comes from wells.
During the five-year drought, Central Valley farmers fired up their pumps and drew about 9.5 cubic miles of groundwater from the region: enough to fill Lake Shasta seven times, according to a study by UCLA and the University of Houston.
Sonoma County is a groundwater-dependent area, regularly drawing more than 70 percent of its water from wells to meet demand for 260 million gallons a day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Agriculture consumes nearly 150 million gallons, about 60 percent of the total and triple the nearly 50 million gallons (19 percent) needed for homes, businesses and public services like pools, parks and firefighting.
Statewide, the share of water between farms (60 percent) and cities (17 percent) is nearly the same as Sonoma County’s distribution.
California, prideful of its status as an environmental policy leader, is the last western state to impose groundwater management standards.
“A new path we’re all embarking on together,” Jasperse said.
The Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley basins have established their local agencies; Petaluma Valley is expected to do so June 22. Board members are appointed by the cities and water agencies in each basin, with Sonoma County, the county Water Agency and Sonoma Resource Conservation District included in all three.
“It’s been hard to get the message out,” said Ann DuBay, a Water Agency spokeswoman. “People are now getting concerned.”
But, she noted, the local agencies have more than four years to develop their groundwater management plans. “Nothing’s going to happen for awhile.”
The new legal regime was a long time coming for a state accustomed to periods of scarce rainfall and increasing human demand.
An ‘old Wild West’ system
Since its earliest days, the state adhered to English common law that allowed landowners to pump at will from their property, modified by the state Supreme Court establishing a vague standard of “reasonable use” in 1903, said Brian Gray, a water law expert and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.
The state began regulating surface water use in 1914, but groundwater remained under what Gray called an “old Wild West” system. Courts have since set pumping standards in 22 groundwater basins, mostly in Southern California, but there are otherwise no specific pumping caps.
Under the new law, Gray said he expects many local groundwater sustainability agencies to set pumping limits, which are “likely to be the only effective and fair way to reduce aggregate pumping to sustainable levels.”
Pumping limits could apply to publicly owned wells, such as the two wells that Santa Rosa operates mostly in summer to meet peak demand and provide about 5 percent of the city’s water, said Jennifer Burke, the city’s deputy director of water resources.
“We want to be an active participant in the process,” she said, noting that cities have a vested interest in the future of groundwater.
The state law empowers local agencies to develop water conservation projects, and Rabbitt, the county supervisor, said he thinks most of the county’s groundwater shortfalls could be remedied by diverting Russian River winter flows into detention basins that would recharge the underlying aquifers.
“Last winter we could have filled up a lot of aquifers,” he said.
Rabbitt also thinks the fees to support groundwater sustainability should be applied to both rural areas and cities in the three basins, noting that 84 percent of the people in the Petaluma Valley basin live in Petaluma.
“Spreading out the cost is a fair and equitable way to go,” he said.
The fee could be $2 to $4 a month, he said.
Voters in 2014 approved a state ballot measure that will eventually provide $100 million to fund the sustainability effort.
That same year, the California Farm Bureau Federation adamantly opposed the groundwater law.
A legislative analyst’s report noted the bureau’s comment that the measure “will have huge long-term economic impacts on farms, the state and local economies and county tax rolls, with a very real potential to devalue land and impact farms and businesses viability and in turn impact jobs.”
More than 40 agriculture-related organizations signed on as opponents of the bill.
Tito Sasaki, a Sonoma Valley grape grower and chairman of the local Farm Bureau’s water committee, acknowledged the group’s initial complaint. “It was a one-size-fits-all groundwater situation,” he said.
But after it became law, Sasaki said the Sonoma County Farm Bureau became determined to be part of the rule-making process. Seats on the local groundwater agencies were limited by law to public agencies, and the growers gained access through the obscure North Bay Water District, formed decades ago but never engaged in water delivery.
Groundwater is an “essential source” of water for vineyard irrigation, Sasaki said.
But in apportioning the costs of the sustainability campaign, vineyards should get credit for providing 60,000 acres of aquifer recharge area, he said.
Mulas, who is on the Sonoma Valley basin board as a member of the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, said she, too, wants farmers to get a fair shake.
Farmers who use groundwater exclusively have been paying taxes for the Warm Springs Dam for decades, but get none of its water, she said.
Rabbitt said the sustainability effort is forward-looking.
“We want to make sure for this generation and for the next generation that we are not depleting groundwater,” he said.
And besides, he noted wryly: “We have to do it or the state will come in and do it for us.”
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @guykovner.