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Quenching Sonoma County’s Thirst

by Bleys Rose
Press Democrat
January 2007

Sonoma County will have enough water for the next two decades except in critically dry years – if it can secure a 35 percent increase in the amount of water it can draw from reservoirs.

That is the key conclusion of a long-term forecast that environmentalists have criticized as overly optimistic.

The assumption that the Sonoma County Water Agency will win state approval to increase annual water rights from 75,000 to 101,000 acre- feet by 2016 underpins the county’s latest Urban Water Management Plan, a document that gets revised twice a decade.

Unlike several previous revisions, this plan carries extra heft because it details how cities will deal with water shortages and tackles the touchy issue of future water sources.

“This is the first time we have really tried to look at the water-use picture that includes conservation, recycled water, Russian River water and ground water,” said Jay Jasperse, the water agency’s deputy chief engineer.

In the event of drastic shortage, the water agency figures it will be able to meet only 85 percent of demand.

County officials are betting water conservation measures, their drought-tolerant allocation formulas and their attempts to comply with Endangered Species protections for salmon and steelhead trout will sway the state Water Resources Control Board.

The state agency has the power to free additional reservoir water that would flow into the Russian River, and then to pumps that would carry it into the delivery system serving Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma.

A significant component of the plan is the projection that the added water will be enough to meet needs “for the next 20-plus years,” said Paul Kelley, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

A key element in the state water board’s decision will be a determination by the National Marine Fisheries Service whether the amount of water in the Russian River and Dry Creek already is too high for endangered fish to thrive. The report concedes a biological assessment already has determined flows “may be higher than optimal for the listed species.”

Some leading environmentalists and watershed protection activists say that and other hurdles are yet to be surmounted.

There’s also a movement afoot to restore fisheries by knocking down dams, such as Yreka’s Iron Gate Dam on the Klamath River. If that’s viewed as a solution for endangered salmon on the Russian River, which is fed in part by diversions from the Eel River, then water-use projections could be seriously askew.

“There are a lot of assumptions that will not necessarily play out as you wish them to,” said Brenda Adelman of the Russian River Watershed Protection Committee. “This is really an important document.”

Environmental groups criticize the report for being unrealistically optimistic about Sonoma County’s ability to increase its rights to draw water out of the Warm Springs and Coyote dams and for ignoring contrary evidence of diminishing water supplies.

“It is a promise of nothing but paper water,” said David Keller, director of Friends of the Eel River group. “The problem is that the construction in the cities and the demand will go as if we really do have this water.”

Keller said the report’s water supply predictions contradict others contained in the county’s draft Environmental Impact Review on the General Plan. The EIR says uncertainties surround future water supply calculations, which make planning for growth difficult.

Keller and other water resource advocates, like Adelman and H.R. Downs of the OWL Foundation, contend ground water in the Santa Rosa Plain already is disappearing faster than it’s being replenished and the county can’t cope with several years of drought.

The 284-page report, available at the water agency Web site, www.scwa.ca.gov, will form the basis for most Sonoma County cities to determine how much water they can expect to receive through 2030 and what kind of development can be accommodated with that water.

The water agency supplies about 600,000 people through contracts with 13 entities including Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Windsor.

Kelley said getting those jurisdictions to agree to water conservation measures, as well as allocations in the event of shortages, was pivotal in making accurate predictions on usage.

“Working together with the contractors on water-use targets, conservation goals and expansion of the system means we will have enough water in our service area,” Kelley said.

The report notes that water agency contractors agree to encourage customers to implement about two dozen conservation measures that include lawn irrigation controllers and more efficient toilets, dishwashers, clothes washers and showerheads.

Supervisor Tim Smith acknowledged that all the plan’s projections for nearly three decades may not come about.

“It is safe to say this is a work in progress with a lot of variables,” Smith said.