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OUR WATER Future at Risk


OUR WATER Future at Risk

“During the dry years, the people forgot about the rich years, and when the wet years returned, they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.” John Steinbeck, East of Eden. 

Will we reduce our water use permanently or be unprepared for the next drought?

By Bill Wadsworth

Most of us drink the Sonoma County Water Agency’s (SCWA) Russian River water stored in reservoirs. Our lives and livelihood are dependent upon this most valuable natural resource. As we grow into the future, we need to be aware that we have a problem. Our water source, limited by our water rights, has been overcommitted by 16% by the Water agency signing long-term agreements with its main water contractors.

Since SCWA is currently delivering just over half of its water now1, this overcommitted water isn’t a present concern for SCWA, but it should be for us. Here’s why. 

SCWA’s overcommitted water is providing the basis for current development. But SCWA fails to have sufficient water rights to provide water for these projects after 2035.2 There is a high risk that neither water resources nor water rights will increase sufficiently to cover this shortage.

Before the age of climate change, building houses based on “hoped for” water was a common practice because houses on the ground were always an incentive to get water rights later. This tactic won’t work in the climate change future because California is reaching the end of its long-term water supply.

Climatologists report that California is heading toward a mega-drought that could dwarf the Dust Bowl years, and surpass any drought the region has suffered in the last 1,000 years3. We can’t afford to make commitments based on “hoped for” water.

NASA scientist, and others, have reported that climate models indicate an 80% chance of a mega-drought lasting 30 years between 2050 and 2099 affecting California if world governments can’t agree to reduce greenhouse gas emissions significantly3. Currently, President Trump plans to withdraw from the IPCC Paris agreement. This will seriously harm the world governments’ ability to agree on CO2 reductions and to get on a sustainable course. Therefore, this 80% risk will likely remain high. The window of opportunity for humans to reduce their emissions enough to forestall surpassing the 20 C target set by the IPPC is very narrow. 

The most recent five-year drought forced miniscule water restrictions on our lifestyle, but a mega-drought of 30 years confronting an over developed Sonoma County would be devastating to our quality of life, property values, economies, and jobs. 

I will use my hometown of Occidental as an example of how SCWA’s overcommitted water can cause harm. When the Occidental board approved the Harmony Village development, which will increase the size of Occidental by about one-third, it did not have the water rights to supply the project water. The board made this decision relying on “hoped for” water, but its water permit failed to provide the water. To cover this serious shortfall, our board arranged to get SCWA’s Russian River water so that it could continue to develop. 

However, limited by its own water rights, SCWA can’t provide water beyond 20352. Therefore, Occidental faces future water rationing and the high expense of hauling water to serve our community. This practice sets up pressure for future unlawful diversions, which will undermine Occidental’s potable water permit, and waste-disposal permit restrictions designed to protect the aquatic life, including Salmon, an endangered species. 

Santa Rosa, North Marin, Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Marin MWD, Valley of the Moon, Sonoma, Cotati, and Windsor have long-term agreements with SCWA that must be renewed for the current amounts. The total to be provided these districts is 87,020 AFY4. However, SCWA has only 75,000 AFY of water rights4, a 16% shortfall. SCWA reports it will exceed its 75,000 AFY by 20352.

SCWA has a 27% shortfall when considering communities that have short-term agreements like Occidental. SCWA can refuse to renew these agreements. If your community gets SCWA’s water, then it carries the same high risk of facing a shortfall around 2035. Windsor is unique in that it gets 900 AFY by a long-term agreement and 4,725 AFY by short-term agreement. This means Windsor has similar vulnerabilities as other short-term contractors. Windsor is developing wells to augment its supply, but its wells remain at the “hoped for” water stage.

This practice of over allocating our water resources undermines efforts to make Sonoma County sustainable. We all need to be aware of this limitation as we look for housing solutions and plan for our future. 

This visual presentation dramatically shows the problem of how water on our planet has changed – and will continue to change – over decades.


1 Sonoma County Water Agency: Supply Availability For Urban Water Suppliers, June 14, 2016

2 SCWA’s 2015 UWMP table 4-3 pg.4-4  

3 Study: Unprecedented 21st century drought risk in the American Southwest and Central Plains. Authors: Benjamin I. Cook Toby R. Ault, Jason E. Smerdon.

4 SCWA’s 2006 Restructured Agreement For Water Supply.