River Watch Header Image

Dry Creek Water Pact Overturned

Here’s more information on the Dry Creek wastewater ruling:

Judge’s ruling cites need for environmental impact study of pumping limits

By BLEYS W. ROSE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

A Sonoma County judge’s decision last week in an obscure and arcane lawsuit dealing with Dry Creek water pumping rights is bringing back into focus a decade-old dispute over water regulation affecting farmers and grape growers in the north county.

The county Water Agency and the Dry Creek Agricultural Water Users group thought they had sealed an agreement last March that set limits on pumping. But a rival Dry Creek Valley group, Landowners for Water Rights, won a Superior Court decision that invalidated the pact.

Judge Elaine Rushing’s decision was based on a narrow technicality, that the agreement ran afoul of state Environmental Quality Act regulations because it had environmental impacts that need study and consideration.

But it comes on the eve of release of a hugely important draft environmental impact report delving into many of the same thorny water rights issues as the Water Agency proposes water use policies for all 21,000 acres of Dry Creek and Alexander valleys.

The study, tentatively set for release March 20, is the second of three regional projects that involve upgraded sewage treatment plants, improving treated wastewater quality and piping recycled water to customers. A report covering Sonoma Valley came out last October and another covering the Russian River area is next up.

Pumping by the farmers, grape growers and wineries of Dry Creek water is a key piece of the Water Agency’s resource management because the activity occurs between Warm Springs Dam and the pumps at Wohler Bridge on the Russian River that distribute water to urban areas.
So far, the Sonoma Valley recycled water proposal hasn’t been controversial, but the one for Dry Creek and Alexander Valley has been, if community meetings on the draft report are any indication. The project reportedly will involve creation of 18 reservoirs and use of tertiary treated wastewater from the Santa Rosa treatment plant at The Geysers project.

“We objected with a lawsuit because the Water Agency tried to use that agreement to contractually bind growers to use of recycled waste water and that was coercion,” said Fred Corson, a leader in the Landowners group. “I will tell you that the agricultural community is not united in the desirability and safety of using treated wastewater for irrigation.”

Corson is adamant that wastewater, even treated at a higher level proposed for the Sonoma Valley, is not safe and will eventually contaminate ground water. It is not for drinking and shouldn’t be allowed in aquifers or the water table, he said.

Water Agency officials, however, are just as firm in insisting that disinfected, tertiary recycled water is safe for use on crops, playgrounds, vineyards and fish hatcheries, or just about anything that stops short of putting it directly into the tap. Currently, Water Agency facilities treat wastewater at a lower, secondary level, which doesn’t allow it on residential landscaping, on schoolyards or in contact with edible parts of crops.
“We have no problem with the quality of recycled water,” said Pam Jeane, the Water Agency’s chief deputy engineer. “It is being used on vineyards and at dairies in the state and there has not been any illness due to tertiary treated water.”

Jeane said although the court case had little to do with the upcoming environmental review on valley water usage, it does force the Water Agency to rescind the agreement and ask county supervisors for direction.

“Whatever directions the supervisors give, I am sure it will involve continuing to work with the Dry Creek folks,” Jeane said.