Sonoma, Marin county water provider is squirreling away rainwater to slake drought — at a cost

When the average in October hovers above 2 inches, the more than 13 inches dumped on Santa Rosa by recent rains is a “very good beginning” to fight the drought, according to a speaker at a Sonoma County business conference Wednesday.

But Sonoma County Water Agency remains committed to stepping up its water conservation game for its 600,000 customers in Sonoma and Marin counties, General Manager Grant Davis said at the Impact Sonoma virtual conference, presented by the North Bay Business Journal.

The agency is banking some of that rainwater from the Russian River in at least one of the three existing groundwater storage banks in west Santa Rosa needing improvements to get up and running again. The one on Todd Road holds 1.5 million gallons of capacity per day. The other two on Sebastopol and Occidental roads that may capture 1.8 million and 1.6 million gallons, respectively, are expected to be used by next summer.

“This is our future. Our future lies in managing properly these groundwater basins,” he said about his agency, which also handles wastewater management for eight zones and districts.

The agency finished a summer with “one of the driest” years on record.

Beyond the obvious household drinking water concerns, dairy farmers were staring down dry conditions that could make or break them. Regenerative farming using environmentally driven measures like composting to moisturize the soil became more than a buzzword. It’s turned into a way of life.

“We came really close,” Davis said of the prospect of dire farm loss.

Besides delivering drinking water and taking away waste, Davis’ agency maintains almost 100 miles of streams and detention basins for flood protection and management and manages the Russian River Watershed Restoration Program. Through an unprecedented two years of drought, the agency ended up asking Santa Rosa residents this summer to reduce water use by 20%.

But more measures are necessary, Davis cautioned. The agency will evaluate other means of water retention that will require infrastructure investment. This “may involve” rate increases. To that, Davis touted Sonoma County as paying “the lowest rates in the Bay Area,” wholesale rates that appear lower than most “cable bills.”

Moreover, Davis warned of the public’s letting its guard down with the recent storms that haven’t yet taken the North Bay out of the woods.

The cautionary tale is heightened by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s predicting another La Nina weather pattern for the 2021-2022 winter. The tropical phenomenon, which forms as a colder water mass off the shores of South America, often ushers in dry conditions to the greater Bay Area.

The challenge of securing enough water for the region comes with prudent planning. Leaks at the average U.S. household can account for nearly 10,000 gallons of water wasted each year, and 10% of homes loses 90 gallons or more per day, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported.

When asked what the business community may do to help in the water conservation efforts, Davis suggested companies conduct water audits.

“If they own the building, they should look at the landscaping,” he told North Bay Business Journal Publisher Lorez Bailey, moderator of the event.

Impact Sonoma, a strategic look into 2022, was underwritten by Exchange Bank.

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