Water: Lifeblood of Sonoma County

Water is one of the greatest forces on Earth. It has shaped every continent, from mountain ranges to great river valleys to vast alluvial plains and deltas. We’ve even recently discovered that water was once one of the greatest forces to shape Mars. From gigantic water bodies that dominate whole regions, such as the Mississippi River, the Everglades, and the Great Lakes, to smaller-scale ones such as the Russian River, water defines a place.

A force capable of shaping planets and continents inevitably influences human societies as well. Humans’ relationship to water and the various ways in which we have chosen to allocate and control the water available to us—for drinking, producing food, and providing sanitation, power, transportation, industry, and so on—have shaped our cultural, political, and societal development from the dawn of our evolution to the present time.Russian River

Sonoma County is largely defined by the Russian River and its tributaries. It moderates our climate and helps create the multitudinous microclimates that make our county the second most biodiverse in the state of California. Our water supplies rely on brief, intense bursts of rainfall that come only a few months of the year. Depending as it does on the temperature and prevailing currents of the Pacific Ocean, our yearly rainfall is variable and capricious—in some years we receive fewer than 20 inches and in others we receive over 80. Over geologic time, the dynamic, flushing flows resulting from this weather pattern have transported immense amounts of coarse sediment from the Russian River System’s sources in the Northern Coast Ranges and deposited it in our valleys, creating vast gravel deposits and ideal spawning habitat for many species of fish.

The culture and economy of Sonoma County are inseparable from its landscape and supported fundamentally by its water resources. The hundreds of unique micro-climates support a cornucopia of agricultural products and are what make for such a diverse and productive agricultural industry and one of the greatest wine-producing regions in the world. Its abundant gravel deposits have been mined since the early 1900s and incorporated into such structures as the Golden Gate Bridge, the BART tunnels, and major roads and buildings throughout the Bay Area. Our rivers have been vacation destinations for generations of tourists, and they are the primary source of drinking water for over 600,000 people.

These activities have not only contributed to our prosperity, but they have negatively impacted our water resources themselves. Three of our aquifers are among the 127 statewide listed as in danger of depletion. This has resulted from overdraft for irrigation, frost protection, and domestic supply and leads to saltwater intrusion, lowering water tables, land subsidence, and reduced surface flows and vernal pools—in turn negatively impacting fish and wildlife. Dam building and gravel mining have contributed to the channel degradation and straightening of the Russian River, which creates faster flows, drains alluvial aquifers, flushes out gravels necessary for fish spawning, and increases flooding of riverside communities.

However, hope lies in the fact that the same variability and uncertainties inherent in the source of Sonoma County’s water supplies has also cultivated a society that is proactive, innovative, and bold when it comes to utilizing and conserving them. For example:

  • On April 1, 2015, Governor Brown ordered a statewide 25% reduction in urban water usage. Sonoma County has already reduced its water usage by 30% below 2013 levels.
  • The Sonoma County Water Agency operates the only 100% carbon-free water system in California.
  • Laguna Waste Water Treatment Plant, Santa Rosa CAOur recycled water treatment technology is ranked among the top 5% in the world and results in about 22 million gallons of water per day. Half of that is sent to the geysers, where it is used to generate clean electricity for around 100,000 households. The other half is used to irrigate crops, parks, playgrounds, golf courses, and urban landscaping throughout the county—keeping potable water from being used for those purposes.
  • Sonoma Clean Power is currently developing the nation’s largest floating solar project, projected to come online in 2016. The panels are initially being located on six wastewater treatment ponds, and in addition to providing power to 3000 homes, they will help reduce evaporative loss and suppress algae growth—and perhaps also provide a safe landing spot for migratory birds.

The Sonoma Resource Conservation District just came out with an updated version of its citizen guidebook for stormwater management and water conservation, entitled Slow it. Spread it. Sink it. Store it!  It contains valuable information on how to effectively adapt to an environment where the water comes suddenly, sporadically, and sometimes copiously and how best to conserve, maintain, and regenerate it. Slow it. Spread it. Sink it. Store it! is good advice not only for the health and abundance of our water systems but for ourselves as a society as well. Go slow and take the long view—patient as water carving the Grand Canyon. Spread and distribute the resources we have as efficiently and fairly as possible, and intertwine our support systems broadly—like the roots of our native redwoods and valley oaks—so that we are resilient to whatever climate change and growing population will bring. Sink deeply into community and let it rejuvenate and inspire us. And store enough of what we have for the next seven generations—and beyond.

For an overview of the history of California water law, please watch this recorded webinar:

Gwen Beacham is the Education Programs Manager at the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy in Santa Rosa, CA. She is a former visiting faculty member at Principia College in Elsah, IL, in the Global Perspectives and Biology & Natural Resources Departments and practiced water law as an Associate at Carlson, Hammond & Paddock, LLC, in Denver, CO.

This blog and webinar were produced as information material for the Leadership for a Sustainable Future course.  It has been provided to the public to promote community wide education on issues of sustainability. You can support the education efforts of the Leadership Institute, 501 (c)3 non-profit, by donating here.