County officials say the glass is half full. Well owners say it’s half empty. Are groundwater sources evaporating?

By R. V. Scheide

There’s a deep-dish Gravenstein apple pie with golden, flaky crust cooling on the kitchen counter in John King’s family home in Penngrove, freshly baked by his mother, Florence. It’s been sitting there all afternoon like a prop from a Norman Rockwell painting, as King, whose family has farmed and ranched Sonoma County for five generations, recounts how the well on his parents’ ranch ran dry and he was drafted into the region’s water war.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” he says. Husky, with a thick lock of blond hair and wearing a Harley Davidson 100th anniversary T-shirt, blue jeans and cowboy boots, King, 47, looks all rancher, but he’s also a professional financial auditor. When his well started running dry in the 1990s, the numbers just didn’t add up. “The whole ranch used to be irrigated by a 100-foot-deep well,” he explains. “By ’96, that well was pumping mud. My parents lost their well, then all of our neighbors lost their wells. When you run out of water and you have a hundred head of cattle that need water daily, it isn’t pleasant.”

King was forced to spend $15,000 to drill a new 386-foot-deep well. The livestock were moved off the 132-acre Penngrove ranch. Concerned his ranch might permanently lose its water supply, King took action, creating a well survey form on the computer and distributing thousands of copies to residents who depend on the Southern Santa Rosa Plain groundwater basin for their water. He didn’t expect many well owners to answer, since the disclosure of water problems can torpedo property values. Yet five years later, the map of Sonoma County on one of the two flip-charts set up in King’s kitchen displays hundreds of tiny stars marking the wells of survey respondents, many of whom report such conditions as dramatically declining water levels, wells running dry and severe bacterial contamination.

Out of necessity, King’s become a self-educated expert on groundwater issues in Sonoma County. He first contacted the Bohemian to correct some of the facts in the paper’s previous installment on North Bay water issues, (Aug. 18). A great blue heron was misidentified as a sandhill crane. An acre-foot of water, he informed, isn’t three football fields as reported but slightly less than one football field. (Imagine that field under a foot of water, and you’ve got an acre-foot, 325,851 gallons, enough to supply two families of four for a year. Keep those figures in mind. They’ll come in handy later.)

One more error, King pointed out, concerned a lawsuit filed against Rohnert Park that has, for the time being, stalled that city’s development plans until it brings groundwater usage under control. King and the South County Resource Preservation Committee filed the suit, not the OWL Foundation, as stated in the story. The suit was settled in 2002, a year before OWL was formed. King wanted to ensure that the committee, comprising 200 Sonoma County families who donated to fund the litigation, gets credit where credit’s due. He good-naturedly admitted the mistake was understandable, given that he has worked with the Penngrove-based OWL Foundation and even came up with the group’s acronymic moniker, which stands for Open Space Water Resource Protection and Land Use.

But the mistake that really put a burr in King’s backside, and why he’s spending the good part of a perfect summer afternoon flipping through the charts he’s shown literally hundreds of times in city council meetings, community forums and courtrooms, is the claim that little is known about the aquifers underlying Sonoma County. There’s plenty that we do know about the groundwater supply in the county, he says, and he’s got the charts, culled from readily available public documents, to prove it.

The charts and presentation are dazzling: high-resolution blowups of maps and diagrams depicting the southern Sonoma County water basin flip by rapidly as he relates the existing data in a reasonably understandable but machine-gun-like fashion. Two diagrams feature black rings drawn around Rohnert Park’s city wells. The rings represent theoretical “cones of depression,” so-called because well pumps exert suction that radiates out into the aquifer, in some cases for miles, sucking up water in a pattern that looks like an inverted cone–or a martini glass–in cross-section.

The first chart shows 30 days of groundwater pumping; none of the rings drawn around the wells intersect. Flip. The second chart shows two years of daily groundwater pumping; the rings around the city’s wells expand into one giant cone of depression beneath Rohnert Park. “It clearly shows that the wells in Rohnert Park are competing for water,” King says. “The same thing is happening in the Petaluma Valley groundwater basin between southern Penngrove and Petaluma. We’re all competing for the same water.”

The cities, with more powerful pumps and deeper wells, are winning this competition at the expense of residents in the unincorporated areas of the county, King insists. It’s a persuasive demonstration that he finishes off with dessert.

“It’s like this pie,” he says, snatching the cooling pastry off the kitchen counter. The amount of available groundwater is a fixed quantity. “If it’s just you and me, there’s plenty,” he says, proffering the pie so that its tantalizing aroma can be sensed before quickly whisking it back to the counter. “But suppose four people come over? Eight? Sixteen?” The implication for Sonoma County’s growing population is clear. “Mom’s apple pie is a lot like water,” he says. “Enjoy it before it’s gone.”


John King’s not just talking pie in the sky. According to the California Department of Finance, Sonoma County’s population is projected to increase some 35 percent, or by 163,000 people, by 2020. That’s 163,000 new guests lining up at the water trough. To quench much of this growing population’s thirst, the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA), which currently supplies 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties with potable water, has petitioned the California State Water Board to increase Russian River diversions by 35 percent from Lake Sonoma.

The increase is necessary, the SCWA says, in order to meet the future demand of those contractors to which it wholesales water: the cities of Cotati, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Sonoma; the Forestville, North Marin, Marin Municipal and Valley of the Moon water districts; the Larkfield, Penngrove and Kenwood Village water companies; the town of Windsor; and various customers in the agricultural and government sectors. In fiscal 2001, demand by contractors on the agency’s aqueduct system was 62,023 acre-feet (AFY). By 2035, that demand is projected to increase by 43 percent, to 88,400 AFY.

Two-thirds of the agency’s water deliveries, which are measured in millions of gallons per day (1 mgd equals 1,210 AFY), go to residential use. Because the agency can’t meet the total demand for water in the county, many local contractors–as well as private landowners in unincorporated areas like Penngrove–depend on existing groundwater supplies.

For example, in 1999 the SCWA supplied an average 2.68 mgd to Rohnert Park via the Petaluma Aqueduct. But Rohnert Park’s total demand averaged nearly 7 mgd. To meet that demand, the city’s 31 active wells pumped 4.19 mgd, nearly two-thirds of the total need. Rohnert Park’s 20-year general plan projected the city’s population to increase from 41,000 in 2000 to 50,400 by 2020, with average water demand increasing to 8.5 million gallons per day.

At least that was the projection before John King and the South County Resource Preservation Committee entered the picture. By 1999, when Rohnert Park began accepting public comment on its 2020 general plan, King and a growing number of county residents were convinced the city’s voracious pumps were sucking their own wells dry. The city’s figures showed that its average daily groundwater usage for the past two decades exceeded the amount required to recharge the aquifer, a condition known as overdraft. If left unchecked, overdraft conditions can permanently damage an aquifer’s ability to store water.

To add insult to injury, the new general plan proposed building 4,500 new homes and 5 million square feet of commercial and industrial space on 1,250 acres designated as an aquifer recharge area by the state Department of Water Resources. The land, annexed from Sonoma County, lies about a quarter mile from the King family’s home.

The city wasn’t just proposing to use more water in the future; it was proposing to pave over the aquifer’s ability to recharge itself and protect the water supply, right in King’s backyard.

At the time, few people in the county were as prepared as King to enter battle. He took his flip-charts to the city council and jaws dropped. Then, with the South County Resource Preservation Committee, many of whom he met by going door to door, he hauled the data into Sonoma County Superior Court, which, as a condition of the settlement agreement reached in 2002, ordered Rohnert Park to cut its groundwater pumping nearly in half as a prerequisite for expanding beyond its 1999 city limits. Groundwater concerns, apparently for the first time in recent Sonoma County history, had halted a development plan in its tracks.

“People used to laugh at me when I talked about declining groundwater supplies all the time,” King says. “They’re not laughing anymore.”

Penngrove resident Steve Carle, a geohydrologist for Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and chief science adviser for the OWL Foundation, calls the Rohnert Park settlement agreement “the only effective groundwater management action” taken to date in Sonoma County. It also appears to be the sole groundwater management action taken in the county, period.

As Carle notes on OWL’s website, the court encouraged Rohnert Park to formulate a groundwater plan with the SCWA, but the agency declined to participate. Similarly, the agency previously declined to participate in the Department of Water Resource’s 1997 groundwater-management program, which provides state grants and educational materials to counties that choose to establish such programs.

The agency’s reluctance is perhaps understandable, considering that surface water, filtered through the Russian River aquifer, accounts for the main portion of the water it supplies. The SCWA currently operates three groundwater wells in the Santa Rosa Plain, which pump a combined 7.6 mgd, or 8,520 AFY, amounting to about 12 percent of the total it supplies to contractors. While the agency tends to downplay groundwater’s contribution in the mix, King points out that the amount pumped is equal to Rohnert Park’s consumption, and refers to the three wells, located near Sebastopol, as a “phantom city.” Because Sebastopol is the only incorporated city in Sonoma County that doesn’t receive water from the SCWA, it pumps groundwater from the Santa Rosa Plain, competing directly with this phantom city.


The current water-supply agreement encourages the development of local groundwater sources but leaves growth decisions up to the contractors–the cities and local water districts–none of whom currently has a groundwater management program in place. Carle believes the days of city and county officials ignoring groundwater management of Sonoma County’s 40,000 domestic wells may be over.

“Now the limits are being reached, and they’re looking for other options,” Carle says. “The contractors are trying to figure out how to squeeze as much as possible from the existing capacity.”

But this squeezing of Sonoma County’s surface and groundwater resources is coming under increasing scrutiny, from state and federal regulators, and from environmental groups and ordinary citizens living in unincorporated areas who just want to know why their wells keep running dry. During the past year, a whirlwind of legal activity, organizational efforts and public-education forums have heightened the sense that the region’s ability to provide water for the growth projected in city and county plans may be in doubt.

The Sonoma County Water Coalition, an alliance formed between members from a cross-section of local environmental groups, including OWL, the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Sebastopol Water Information Group, is attempting to shape the county’s general plan update, which for the first time will contain a separate water element. The coalition hopes to have language that calls for “a countywide policy for sustainable groundwater management” inserted into the revised general plan, scheduled to be finalized early next year.

Crafting such bureaucratic language can be a painfully slow process, particularly when the editing and revising is being done by volunteers with day jobs and real lives. More often than not, the language gets watered down by county and city officials when the final product is released. In addition to such duty, many of the same activists made presentations at public water forums held earlier this year in Sebastopol and Bennett Valley.

The complex scientific jargon of water at such forums can be, ironically, dry, and you get the sense it makes King just a little bit antsy. At a recent Bennett Valley water forum, he directed a pointed question at Sonoma County supervisor and SCWA board member Valerie Brown, one of the evening’s panel guests: “How is it that this county can consider moving forward with a new master water agreement between the Sonoma County Water Agency and the cities of Marin and Sonoma counties to commit to and export more groundwater supplies for people that don’t live here yet when we have so many problem areas here in the county, including these people here in the room tonight?” he boomed to raucous applause.

Looking a little piqued, Brown collected herself before replying.

“I wish that you would all recognize that whenever you moved here, that’s not the last time anyone’s moving here,” she said. “We are still going to accept growth in this county. Thankfully, we have a general plan with development at a reasonable rate that can be absorbed. That means that we think differently about sanitation, land use and about water. Those all get incorporated into the growth. But is it unreasonable growth? Are we going to become San Francisco? Look at the plan, it’s not in there.”

If you don’t agree, Brown added, you can always move to Cloverdale or, better yet, Lake County.

King has looked at the plan, and is still mystified where water for the 163,000 newcomers expected by 2020 is going to come from. So are the 18 members of the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury, who during the past year considered evidence presented by organizations such as OWL as well as the managers from the SCWA and the Permit and Resource Management Department.

Released in July, the grand jury’s report recommends that the county and each of the cities implement groundwater plans in their general plans by 2005. The report also recommended that the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors relinquish its membership on the water agency’s board and create a new, independent board of directors accountable to the electorate. However, the recommendations are not legally binding, and no sitting supervisor has voiced support for disbanding the agency’s current framework.

Watered down, once again.


Legal action and environmental regulation now seriously jeopardizing the diversion of water from the Eel River and the SCWA’s requested 35 percent increase in Russian River surface water have added a sense of urgency to the groundwater issue in Sonoma County. Without the Eel River diversion, Sonoma County is an island, with no other outside sources of water available. According to SCWA deputy engineer Jay Jaspers, the agency is currently working with the U.S. Geological Survey on a comprehensive study of the region’s groundwater. Jaspers says the survey won’t be completed for three or four years.

That’s not soon enough for Sebastopol mayor Linda Kelley.

“The city of Sebastopol cannot wait five years to create its own groundwater management plan,” she said at a Sebastopol water forum. “If we don’t get this thing right, there will be no Sebastopol.”

“She once sat right where you’re sitting and watched the same presentation,” King says back in the kitchen of his family home in Penngrove. He pulls out two framed aerial photographs of the ranch, one in black and white taken in 1947, the other in color, taken in 1993 from the same angle, back before the ranch’s well went dry. “This should be considered a big success,” he says, asking if any difference can be seen in the two photos. There isn’t any difference, and that’s his point.

With the exception of the removal of livestock, the King family ranch’s wide-open 132 acres, now planted in oat hay, have remained the same. Valerie Brown may be correct. Sonoma County isn’t going to become the next San Francisco, but unless someone gets a handle on the water supply, it’s not going to be the same Sonoma County that five generations of King’s family have known, either.

King is not going to sit around idly and let that happen. The phone rings constantly, someone with a groundwater question, a colleague asking about an upcoming meeting. In fact, a new group is meeting in Santa Rosa on the night we speak, something called Coalition for Unincorporated Sonoma County. As King points out, landowners in unincorporated areas continue to pay for 1984’s construction of Warm Springs Dam as part of their property taxes, but the water agency isn’t under any obligation to provide them with water from Lake Sonoma, and the water cannot be used for agriculture. The new group seeks to give a voice to the more than 100,000 people who live in the unincorporated areas of the county and want to see their rural lifestyle protected.

Just another facet in Sonoma County’s water war.

King holds up a recent photograph of his mom and dad, silver-haired, fourth-generation farmers, standing against a backdrop of chest-high oat hay, a modern American Gothic.

“This is a success story,” he says. “This is good news.”

No doubt in the days ahead it won’t be the last word heard from John King on the subject.

From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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