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November 10, 2003

Measuring water levels in a 150-year old well

The article below has appeared in the Sonoma Valley Voice and is scheduled to be printed in the North Bay Progressive.


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Measuring groundwater through a modern wellhead.



Groundwater, Inherently Invisible, is Disappearing
By H.R. Downs

A hundred years ago, or so, a well was a giant hole in the ground. People easily could look down their well and see the water level. When summer came they easily could see the level drop. If a drought hit, they knew that groundwater supplies were in trouble because the level dropped even farther.

Today a well is a high-tech piece of machinery that is completely enclosed. Nobody can look down a modern well and if the groundwater level drops, most people are completely ignorant of the fact. Groundwater has become invisible to the average person. Unfortunately, what you can’t see can still hurt you.

That sinking feeling

The entire Santa Rosa subbasin, one of most “water rich” areas of Sonoma County, is in serious groundwater overdraft. “Overdraft” means the levels have dropped and the rain and underground intrusions can’t bring the levels back up to normal. According to Rohnert Park’s own 1999 hydrologic study published in a 2000 EIR, the water table under Rohnert Park has dropped 150 feet in just the last couple of decades. Unpublished Rohnert Park city records demanded by the Open space, Water resource protection and Land use (O.W.L.) Foundation reveal that when the city’s entire well field is in full throttle, the water table can dive more than 300 feet. All over the county, people report dry wells and an increasing number are forced to truck water because they found no water at any depth. The O.W.L. Foundation has obtained written testimony from hundreds of people with groundwater problems. Both the PES Environmental study and studies conducted by the Kleinfelder Geotechnical Engineering Company show widespread groundwater problems in Sonoma County.

Groundwater management a must

The Friends of the Eel River recently won an appeal against the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) that will reduce diversions from the Eel River to the Russian River by up to 80 percent. Virtually every city in the county has counted Eel River water in their expansionist general plans. These general plans, all of them, are now based on erroneous data. There is no longer a secure water source.

In an August 11, 2003 letter from SCWA General Manager Randy Poole to “All Contractors, Customers, and Water Diverters under Agency Rights”, Mr. Poole says in part:

“ The Sonoma County Water Agency's state water rights permits limit the Agency's Russian River diversions and rediversions to 75,000 acre feet per year. The Agency's Water Supply and Transmission System Project ("WSTSP") had contemplated an increase in diversions and rediversions to 101,000 afy. However, with the Court of Appeal decision in the Friends of the Eel River litigation, the Agency cannot implement the WSTSP at this time. Thus, it would be inappropriate for water suppliers relying on water diverted under the Agency's water rights to anticipate water deliveries based upon diversions of 101,000 afy . . .”[emphasis added]


Many cities had been banking on this one-third increase in water and had projected their growth based on it. But now, instead of growing by a third, cities will have to cut back on building projects and start fitting into a very tight water budget.

As diversions from the Eel River dwindle, more groundwater will be sucked out of the ground, and we already know that groundwater is disappearing (cf. PES Environmental and Kleinfelder studies, etc.). Nevertheless, Mr. Poole says:
“ The Agency's water supply facilities include five collector wells and seven conventional wells along the Russian River near Forestville. A sixth collector well is under construction and should be completed in the summer of 2004. In addition, the Agency operates three wells in the Santa Rosa Plain to augment production capacity of the Russian River water supply facilities.” Surely they’ll appeal?

Keen observers have speculated that SCWA will appeal the appeal, and they may. But the court’s decision against SCWA focused on a flawed EIR. Further appeal will cost dearly and take considerable time. The EIR in question, when printed out and placed on a table, has a physical length measured in feet! When SCWA lawyers estimated at a September 8 Water Advisory Committee (WAC) meeting that it would take at least a year to fix, WAC Chairman Miles Ferris, said that would be “Warp speed.” No one had any idea at this meeting what the timetable might be. The only sure thing is that we are looking at very tight water supplies for at least a year, but it could be considerably longer.

Despite clear warnings that our groundwater aquifer is in peril and that a major supply of water from the Eel River will dry up, Sonoma County’s Supervisors and the County’s cities continue to permit growth with scant regard to water supply. But now even SCWA General Manager Randy Poole is saying what the O.W.L. Foundation and Penngrove residents have been saying for years: We have no more water for unbridled growth.

Sonoma County needs a plan

Sonoma County has no groundwater management plan, in other words no one is minding the store. This year millions of dollars in Prop 13 Groundwater Recharge and Storage Construction grants were offered to local governmental agencies, including the Sonoma County Water Agency, all of the cities in Sonoma County, and to the County government itself. The State received 43 grant requests. No requests came from Sonoma County.

The Department of Water Resources (DWR) stipulates that local agencies are responsible for formulating groundwater management plans. DWR has specifically, and repeatedly, warned of the dangers to groundwater overdraft in the Santa Rosa Plain. One warning was spelled out in 1982 in a document known as DWR 118-4 1982. SCWA never bothered to establish monitoring wells; no plan was ever developed, and, not surprisingly, as Rohnert Park’s hydrologic study discovered, the area is in serious overdraft.

In fact, Sonoma County is on record with DWR as having “no interest” in forming a groundwater management plan. Other agencies expressing “no interest” either have no groundwater at all or have small populations located in remote areas. Sonoma County stands out as a generally water rich area whose custodians have “no interest” in managing it.

Consider this passage from “Groundwater Management in California: A Report to the Legislature Pursuant to Senate Bill 1245 (1997), 1999”:

Sections 10750-10756 of the California Water Code (AB 3030, Chapter 947, Statutes of 1992 and amendments) provide a systematic procedure for an existing local agency to develop a groundwater management plan. These sections of the Water Code provide such an agency with the powers of a water replenishment district to raise revenue to pay for facilities to manage the basin (extraction, recharge, conveyance, and quality). One hundred and forty-nine agencies have adopted groundwater management plans in accordance with AB 3030. Other agencies have begun the process. [Emphasis added]

But not Sonoma County’s water agency, why?

This apparent apathy may not be as mysterious as it first seems. Since the entire County suffers varying degrees of water paucity, admitting a problem would slow growth. On August 11, the Water Agency itself admitted that water supplies will dry up and that the cities better learn to adjust. For decades, building has been a sacred cash cow in this county but all that is about to end.

Overdevelopment and its discontents

County government has permitted so many new construction projects that the resulting over population produces human waste in staggering quantities. The effluent is recycled into what officials euphemistically call “treated wastewater.” Treated wastewater doesn’t mean that this water is drinkable; it is still the consequences of human waste. Even grape growers will not use it after fruit has appeared on the vine. And no one knows the long-term effects of wastewater on underground aquifers. Yet because of growing water scarcity, and a burgeoning thirsty population, “treated wastewater” is being foisted on us in increasing quantities.

We are about to see a host of water-saving techniques in addition to wastewater use. All the familiar drought techniques will return; the brick in the toilet reservoir, low flow everything, shower with a friend, you name it, but this time we will be forced to adopt such measures without a drought. We could be headed for big trouble if we don’t quickly implement a groundwater management plan. Something will eventually give if our precious water resources continue to dry up, and the population continues to surge. In other parts of the world, this “something” is called a “water war”.

H.R. Downs is President of the O.W.L. Foundation, a grassroots, non-profit organization dedicated to open space, water resource protection and land use.




Many useful links in the library. Click above.

O.W.L. Foundation


Support your O.W.L. Foundation


7 Steps to Manage Groundwater (from DWR)


State ofCalifornia Department of Water Resources

California Groundwater Association

Groundwater Resources Association of California

Water Facts (from DWR)

Sonoma Vallley Voice

North Bay Progresssive