All Washed Up

All Washed Up

Are freshwater supplies dwindling?

By Stephanie Hiller

“Water is more precious than gold.”
–Governor Gray Davis

Freshwater appears mysteriously, from a hole somewhere in the foothills, and cascades downhill, conveying a torrent of fish and nutrients to replenish the earth. It disappears, merging with the salt sea. It comes back, year after year, as rain. This repeating cycle has nourished the earth for untold millennia. Now, we are running out.

We are running out as a result of our own activity. Water now carries, instead of an abundance of fish, a toxic load, containing every sort of chemical you can imagine, from steroids and birth control hormones to PCBs and Round Up. Rising temperatures throughout the planet speed its evaporation. When the rains return, water rushes away down vast cement and asphalt surfaces to be lost again.

Water wars, like a gloomy promise following the oil wars, loom ahead. Freshwater supplies are finite, unrecoverable once depleted or poisoned. Maude Barlow, author Blue Gold, a scathing study of the water industry, writes that the “water business,” driven by anxiety over the coming scarcity, is now a bigger business than pharmaceuticals. A few giant companies–Bechtel, Vivendi, Water SA–control much of the world’s freshwater, while a few others–Coca-Cola and Pepsi–are bottling it up as Aquafina and Dasani, paying only small fees for the resource.

Already, 1 billion people do not have an adequate supply. But here in Sonoma County, with our bountiful Russian River and wells embedded in gravel and bedrock, our water pours in apparent abundance through our taps.

But the river is challenged. And the groundwater too. And one of the risky things about water is that you don’t know it’s running out until it’s gone.

And once the water is gone, it’s not very easy to get it back.

Drink Deep

Aware that water is a pressing issue, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has agreed to allow a separate water resource element to the general plan update–due to be implemented in 2004–which will guide county policy until 2020. This in itself represents a significant step forward in water policy consciousness. But the subject of the county’s water management resembles the proverbial story of the blind men and the elephant: when the men were asked to describe the elephant, each could describe only the part within his reach.

Although the Russian River watershed is one whole system of intertwining streams, creeks, and groundwater, there are now so many competing demands on that system and so many agencies within the county and at the state and federal levels charged with its regulation, that it is extremely difficult to understand the whole beast.

The three members of the Citizens Advisory Committee for water, all volunteers, have been working together intensively for the past year to produce guidelines for sustainable use. Hydrologist and committee chair Andy Rodgers says it’s significant that there will be a separate element for water, but that it’s very complicated. “We need to have a comprehensive understanding and a responsible approach that’s feasible, and we have so little information about what yields are sustainable.”

Though sustainability is the goal, Sonoma County Water Agency representative Bill Keene pointed out at an October Water Advisory Subcommittee meeting that the term is meaningless regarding groundwater, because we don’t really understand the groundwater situation yet. Rodgers says the committee is now working on a definition.

Running throughout all the complexity is one straightforward question: Do we have enough water? When I asked SCWA manager Randy Poole, he seemed quite confident. We have plenty of water, he told me, for a long, long time.

But will the fish?

In October, 20,000 salmon on their way upriver to spawn went belly up in the Klamath River. Reduced water flows due to competing interests, principally farming, were to blame. The Klamath River, like the Russian, is a managed river. And the river is the water supply.

The SCWA is not in charge of managing the river; it is simply charged with the task of supplying the water for what is termed “beneficial uses.” Its mission is to get enough water out of the river to keep its customers happy. The customers–the principal cities in Sonoma County and also part of Marin–have been growing, and to meet the demand, the agency increases its take from the river. The SCWA holds senior water rights to the river; if water runs short, it will be one of the last users forced to accept a reduction.

The SCWA’s five water collectors pump from wells deep under the gravel bed and three other wells in the unincorporated areas around Sebastopol. The gravel bed is an excellent filter, needing no treatment beyond chlorination. The agency pipes the water to the cities for their 600,000 residential and commercial customers. The agency has no dominion over the rest of the groundwater accessed by individual wells, nor some 400 smaller water suppliers, including the city of Sebastopol. But all these sources are part of the Russian River Watershed.

Poole is remarkably sanguine on the issue of growth too. “We don’t plan for growth; we just supply water,” he notes. “We follow the general plans of the cities.” Acknowledging that growth has resulted in an average increase in water use of about 2 percent a year, Poole nonetheless asserts, “We’ve noticed less increase over time, a different trend in the mixture of newer homes, fewer residents, and less landscaping.”

An environmental impact report in 1998 increased the diversion from the Eel River, and the agency has also requested another increase of 26,000 acre feet. “About half is not related to anticipated growth,” says Poole. “It’s to make up for groundwater supply in Rohnert Park.”

Is it true that the agency may have to build a new water treatment plant (expected to cost $450 million) if new restrictions to protect the fish reduce the take from the river? “I’m optimistic that we won’t have to do that,” says Poole.

In fact, Poole is very confident. “The water supply is sustainable for many generations,” he says.

Bankable Assets

Other people are not so confident. Supervisor Tim Smith, who, along with the other supervisors, is a member of the governing board of the agency, says, “We have enough for another generation. After that, we’ll have to find other sources.” Smith refuses to speculate on the upper limit of our supply, “lacking Tarot cards or tea leaves.” Similarly, he cannot predict growth. “As far as I know, we’re not yet into forbidding people to move here or have children.”

Brenda Adelman, a river watcher for over 20 years and a witness to innumerable meetings with the SCWA and the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, not to mention countless wastewater meetings, says the agency does not reveal its true intentions and is actually very worried about their water. They’re building a new $5 million collector, she tells me: “Their wells got silted up.”

Adelman claims that “two years ago we came really close to running out of water. They didn’t have enough water for fire protection.” She is pleased about the new water element in the general plan but has some concerns, especially regarding the policy statement about the water agency.

“The way it is written,” Adelman says, “it supports the agency’s future actions without knowing what their actions will be. That allows future growth without brakes on that growth, even if the resource should prove to be inadequate.”

The county is still awaiting final determination of what steps might be necessary to save the fish. An inflatable dam that the SCWA now uses during the dry summer months may have to be removed. In addition, the highly controversial diversion of water from the neighboring Eel River through PG&E’s Potter Valley Project is likely to be reduced. Although it has already been reduced by 15 percent on a voluntary basis, continued or increased reduction might force the agency to start taking water out of its reservoir in Lake Sonoma (already polluted by the gasoline additive MTBE from motorboats); in that case, a water treatment plant might be necessary.

Adelman says that the SCWA already has a design for the treatment plant. As for the river now, she says, “I’ve never seen it so low. We could have dead fish and a dead tourist industry before long.”

Brock Dolman, a biologist from the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center who teaches week-long watershed workshops called “Basins of Relations,” also sounds a sharp cry of alarm. “If you believe salmon is the indicator, during the ’40s and ’50s there were [50,000] to 60,000 fish in the Russian River. It’s now in the low hundreds. It indicates high levels of pollution.”

Climate change also complicates the picture immensely in Dolman’s view. “The water agency says their maximum capacity is to pump 90 million gallons. During the July heat wave they were pumping 88 million. That’s how close we are to capacity. As these temperatures increase, we can see how quickly these systems will fail,” he concludes ominously.

Dolman, Adelman, and other water watchers have been bringing their expertise to the meetings of the Water Resource Subcommittee. All agree with Rodgers that it’s an important first step. But Dolman is worried about what will happen when the proposed element gets to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, especially now that Michael Cale is gone. “[Supervisor] Paul Kelley has been quoted as saying, ‘What water problem?'” Dolman says.

“What I want to convey is [that] it makes dollars and sense that all those disparate issues be interrelated, and what’s exacerbating them all is that human development in the aggregate is damaging the system,” Dolman continues. “We’ve gotta deal here! Permitting development typified by dessicating the land–that breaks the pattern.”

Runoff from impervious surfaces in our growing cities and towns is shunted off into the creeks, where it may flood as it rushes off to the sea, instead of sinking down through the porous earth and recharging the water table.

Sucked Dry

Rapid growth in Rohnert Park certainly seems to prove his point. Rohnert Park is one of the agency’s biggest users. Its needs far exceed the production of its own 40 wells, so it contracts with the SCWA for more water through the Russian River Cotati Intertie, a pipeline that links water from the South Santa Rosa Plain with water from the river.

The city acknowledges that its water table has dropped 150 feet in recent years. In adjacent Penngrove, some 100 residents have seen their wells go dry. John King lost his well four years ago on his family ranch which had been irrigated for five generations with one 30-foot well. “You couldn’t pump it dry,” he says–until, that is, it dried up completely. He had to go down 400 feet just to get enough water for his home. “That was a $20,000 hole,” he said, plus $40 a month more to PG&E to bring that water up.

Despite problems in the surrounding area, Rohnert Park’s new general plan calls for annexing 1,200 acres to build 4,500 high density homes, as well as a 5 million square foot commercial and industrial area. Part of that piece is in Penngrove. According to King, the city’s engineering consultant, PES Environmental Inc. identified a subregion of the Santa Rosa plain groundwater basin and determined that the average daily recharge in this entire region is 1.6 million gallons a day.

Rohnert Park alone uses 4.2 million gallons per day, with Penngrove, Sonoma State University, and Cotati drawing another 865,000 gallons. Daily groundwater consumption therefore exceeds the recharge rate by 3.5 million gallons per day, says King.

King has led the charge in a lawsuit against Rohnert Park, claiming that the environmental impact report for the proposed annexation was based on an inadequate analysis of groundwater, an allegation supported by Judge Lawrence Antolini. Antolini gave Rohnert Park the choice to accept his decision to throw out the report or demand that the Penngrove portion of the proposed project be dropped from the plan and groundwater consumption be cut from 4.2 million gallons a day to 2.3 million gallons a day before building.

King says his group is awaiting agreement from the Rohnert Park city council and the Local Agency Formation Commission (which governs annexations by principalities). In the meantime, his group is considering filing suit against the city and LAFCO if the lands are annexed.

Groundwater depletion due to the “vineyardization” of the county has become a major concern. Although the number of failed wells is not known (many people, fearing loss of property resale value, do not report theirs), the county, spurred by demands from the grassroots Town Hall Coalition, has ordered a study by Kleinfelder, an engineering consulting firm, that is still months from completion. Supervisor Valerie Brown emphasized the importance of this research. “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you are,” she said.

A thornier problem that sprang up this fall is the declining water supply in Lake Mendocino. The lake is actually a reservoir created by the Eel River diversion. Residents of Humboldt County have been decrying the diversion, which, according to Nadananda, executive director of Friends of the Eel River, takes as much as 95 percent of Humboldt’s water–although the agency figures are much lower.

“What the agency is doing about Lake Mendocino is very complicated,” says Bill Keene, SCWA’s environmental specialist. “It would take me an hour just to explain that.” Since it was a dry year in the Eel basin, runoff supplying about half of the lake’s water was reduced. “We still have demands on the river,” Keene says, so the agency continued to take its full amount. Now that the situation is urgent, they’re “slowly decreasing.”

Keene didn’t have the figure for the Eel diversion, but he’s sure it’s far below the 70 percent I quoted him. You have to understand, he explained carefully, that “there are streams flowing into the river below the Potter Valley Project.”

But Nadananda says that the allocations are based on the flow from Lake Pillsbury, where there is a lot more water than what comes down through the Potter Valley Project. “The SCWA, knowing it was a drought flow, operated as if there were no drought,” she says. “There’s just a puddle left in Mendocino.”

Unnatural high flows in the Russian River coupled with removal of the water dams brought lots of fish up the river as far as Healdsburg, she added, “and they’re stranded here now. We’ll probably be seeing lots of dead fish like they had up north”–something that Bill Keene assured me “we wouldn’t want . . . to happen here.”

Dr. Marty Griffin, physician and owner of Hop Kiln Winery near Healdsburg, has been coming to the river since he was a boy during the 1940s. His book, Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast, details the work he’s done over 50 years to conserve the water resource in the two counties. When I asked him about the water supply, he said, “I think it’s going right down the tubes. They haven’t stopped the gravel mining in the aquifer. The aquifer no longer functions as it should.

“It’s one of the best water systems in the world, and now we’re ruining it–selling water to 600,000 people, and they take very little responsibility for the health of the watershed.”

What solution does he see? “The best thing would be if the water agency were separated from the board of supervisors.” That has to happen through state legislation, which representative Virginia Strom-Martin attempted to pass a few years back. “It’s an idea that’s evolving. It probably won’t happen,” he adds with a slight chuckle, “until we get some supervisors not so closely related to the development community.”

Watering the Grassroots

While the water agency continues to supply the stated needs of the cities, whatever they may be, dozens of citizens groups work as volunteers to clean up and restore watersheds so that the fish can thrive and the water remain clear.

At Oak Grove School in Graton, Fred Hall has been working with Brock Dolman and others to create a water-use program that returns more water to the Atascadero Creek watershed. That creek, which historically flowed all summer, is bone dry this year. With a grant from the Atascadero-Green Valley Watershed Council, Oak Grove’s goal, “besides education,” says Hall, “is to create zero runoff on five acres using rain barrel cisterns and pervious channels [perforated pipe running through rock and gravel], French drains, and diagonal speed bumps on the bus line to run water into the landscaping via infiltration channels.”

The school is also creating a wetlands area behind one of the buildings, “a place for extra water to go.” Home-school teacher Jean Redus is teaching a six-week course to fifth graders that started in November. Students will help with remediation, prepare brochures, and talk to businesses in town about conservation. “We’ve been drawing too much from the aquifer,” says Hall, known for the recycling program he installed at the school, “and I don’t think people do enough conservation.”

Hands-on projects like Oak Grove School’s tell a very different story from the one told by the water agency. They are the murmurs of a growing grassroots movement to live in closer harmony with our natural resources, conveying a feeling that stewardship is not just a word but a practice.

Whether these smaller projects can counteract the runaway consumption of spreading towns like Rohnert Park remains to be seen. Maude Barlow, in Blue Gold, writes: “Many North Americans use about 132,000 gallons of water each year. . . . Yet people need less than 2,600 gallons of water a year to live.”

Even at that extravagant rate, people use only about 10 percent of the water. Much more is used–and wasted–by agricultural irrigation that loses up to 80 percent to evaporation, and industry, such as Silicon Valley computer chips washed in 396 billion gallons a year.

Compared to the requirements of modern civilization, the needs of the fish seem modest indeed.

The Sonoma County Water Agency will hold a public workshop for the Revised Draft Water Policy Statement 2002 at the Board of Supervisors Chambers, 575 Administration Drive, Santa Rosa, on Dec. 16, 9-11am. Copies are available at or by contacting the administrative office at 707.526.5370.

From the December 5-11, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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