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Water Agency changes direction

Abandons More Diversion in Favor of Conservation and Reuse

Frank Robertson, Sonoma West Staff Writer, September 16, 2009

SANTA ROSA – Despite opposition from its water customers the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors this week adopted a dramatic new plan to divert less water from the Russian River to supply future urban growth in Marin and Sonoma counties.

In a landmark decision that will change the way Sonoma County develops for the foreseeable future the board voted unanimously to abandon its long-held strategy of eventually pumping up to 101,000 acre feet per year (afy) from the Russian River to supply projected regional growth demands through the year 2030.

The “redirection” given to the Sonoma County Water Agency and its 600,000 customers this week means greater water conservation and recycling methods will come into play as the Agency strives for more efficient use of the existing 75,000 afy of Russian River water the Agency already has a right to take.

“We have a lot of hard work in front of us,” said Sonoma County Water Agency Assistant General Manager Grant Davis.

Tuesday’s decision drew staunch opposition from Water Agency contractors who said more time and studies are needed to rationalize such a sudden radical change.

“Our biggest concern is time,” said Santa Rosa Assistant City Attorney Suzanne Rawlings, who unsuccessfully argued in court on Monday to have this week’s strategy decision blocked by a temporary restraining order.

“Take the time now to consider the consequences” of abandoning the 15-year-old Water Project that was based on the Water Agency getting rights to an additional 26,000 afy from Lake Sonoma, said Rawlings.

Chris DeGabriele, manager of the North Marin Water District which depends on the Water Agency’s ability to supply North Marin customers, questioned whether the “unilateral action” by Sonoma County Supervisors, who are also the Water Agency’s board of directors, constituted a legal “breach of contract” that could end up in court.

The new direction, announced only last month, surprised and alarmed Water Agency contractors such as the Marin Municipal Water District, whose General Manager Paul Helliker said he first learned of the change while having lunch last month with Sonoma County Water Agency General Manager Randy Poole and Assistant General Manager Grant Davis.

“We were a little shocked,” Helliker told the board this week. With local cities’ long-term general plans for growth all relying on the Water Project pumping 101,000 afy, “We urge you strongly … to reject” the new direction until new projected growth and demand studies are done, said Helliker.

“We believe the haste at this point is unnecessary,” said Helliker.

Sonoma County Water Agency staffers agreed this week there had been poor communication between the Agency’s staff and its customers, which includes the Town of Windsor and the cities of Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma and Sonoma. But they said a changing economic and environmental landscape compounded by drought, global warming, a recession and federal orders to lower summer flows in the Russian River to improve threatened and endangered native salmon and steelhead habitat make the new direction imperative.

“It’s clear that communications are at an all-time low,” said the Water Agency’s Grant Davis, but the abandonment of the Water Project is a critical move now to preserve the Agency’s existing rights to 75,000 afy. With a mandatory conservation order in effect this summer the Agency has managed to keep all its customers supplied with about 55,000 afy.

The Water Project, which may have required a $500 million pipeline from Lake Sonoma to the Russian River through prime north county vineyards, is no longer feasible, said Water Agency Chief Deputy Engineer Jay Jasperse.

The bottom line is “The Water Project is not affordable,” said Jasperse.

The new strategy direction also drew vocal supporters such as Russian River Watershed Protection Director Brenda Adelman who said time is already running out for the Russian River’s endangered fish.

“We don’t have time for another 15 years of collaboration,” among water users, said Adelman.

Whether diverting another 26,000 afy will ever be economically or environmentally feasible is unknown, said Adelman.

“To keep pretending there’s 101,000 acre feet available is not facing reality,” said Adelman. “We’re all going to have to bite the bullet and learn how to live with less.”

Sonoma County 4th District Supervisor Paul Kelley said it was clear that it could be irresponsible to be asking for more and costly water in the middle of a drought, a recession and with federal and state officials demanding lower River summer flows to protect endangered native fish.

Other jurisdictions involved with the federal Endangered Species Act have actually lost water rights by failing to comply with federal orders on how to improve habitat to help the survival of species that are threatened or endangered with extinction.

“Would we jeopardize the water we have by asking for more?” said Kelley.

It’s a “painful decision” said Kelley, but “jeopardizing what we have by asking for more is not the way to go.”

Kelley called it an “ominous precedent” when there is a “federalizing of state water rights” through the Endangered Species ACt process, “but we have to deal with it.”

The Water Agency’s right to store the additional 26,000 af water in Lake Sonoma for possible future diversion remains intact, said Kelley.

The present situation “is not so much a supply problem, it’s a delivery problem,” said Kelley, who urged water contractors to cooperate on the new strategies rather than fight them in court. He also asked board members to approve $1 million to help “work through” the new strategies with the contractors.

The change in water strategy is an opportunity for “a full transformation on how we look at water supplies,” said 5th District Supervisor Efren Carrillo.