Mar 7, 2019
Representatives of a new local water agency continued to present information about a proposed fee on well owners within the Santa Rosa Plain this week as a final decision on the fee approaches.
The fee is being considered due to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), a state law passed in 2014 that requires local governments to create Groundwater Sustainable Agencies (GSAs) to manage water use in certain groundwater basins across the state.
In Sonoma County, three basins are regulated under the law: the Santa Rosa Plain, the Petaluma Valley Plain and the Sonoma Valley Plain.
As the Gazette reported in February, the Santa Rosa Plain GSA was established in 2017 and was funded by local agencies for the first two years. For the next three years, the agency will be funded by a fee on the water users called the Groundwater Sustainability Fee.
After 2022, the fee will be based on calculations made during the Groundwater Sustainability Plan process.
If the local agency does not create a local fee structure, the state will take over the process and impose significantly higher fees, according to public officials.
“We have a law, we want to make the best of it. That’s our goal here,” Santa Rosa Plain GSA Administrator Andy Rodgers said at a Wednesday, Jan. 30 meeting at the Finley Center.
For instance, the agency estimates that the fee will cost rural well owners between $8 and $13 per year.The state would charge $100 per parcel each year if it intervened in the process.
Well owners who also use city water systems will pay between $1 and $3 per year under the GSA's proposed fee structure.
Rodgers said that the agency is presenting a range because they have not yet decided on a final fee and do not want to announce a fee that is significantly higher or lower than what they projected.
The process has been met with suspicion by some rural residents because groundwater was previously free for well owners. Other residents are supportive of the goal of the new agencies, to achieve"sustainable" groundwater management across the state by 2042.
Rodgers stressed that the new agency is not interested in putting meters on rural water owners' wells. In fact, SGMA does not allow the agency to monitor wells, Rodgers said at a March 6 meeting in Rohnert Park.
According to GSA estimates, rural residents use 25 percent of the groundwater in the basin while city agencies use 37 percent and agricultural users consume 33 percent of the water.
Agricultural users will pay a fee based on the number irrigated acres multiplied by an estimated usage rate based on the type of crop. Water agencies for cities within the plain, including Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park, will pay an annual fee based on their usage.
"We knew this was coming and it's factored into the rates the City Council set a year and a half ago," Rohnert Park's City Engineer Mary Grace Pawson said. "We do not anticipate this particular new mandate is going result in a rate increase for our customers."
The Board is also considering creating a grant program to allow small-scale farmers to waive the new fee if it constitutes a financial hardship.
"We're working on it," Rodgers said Wednesday, noting that there are some legal questions about implementing a grant program.
Other members of the public have questioned the amount commercial water users, including the Graton Casino, will pay for their groundwater usage.
The Graton Casino will not be required to pay an annual fee due to the legal status of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.
"[The tribe] is a sovereign entity. SGMA is a state law, and legally the state cannot access a fee [on the casino]," Jay Jasperse,the plan manager for the Santa Rosa Plain GSA.
The casino has negotiated a separate groundwater use fee with the county and is represented on the GSA Advisory Committee, according to Jasperse.
The Santa Rosa Plain Board will meet twice in the next month to discuss the public meetings and consider approving the fee. Both meetings will be held at the City of Santa Rosa's Utility Field Office, 35 Stony Point Road, Santa Rosa.
Thursday, March 14, 1:00pm - 3:30pm
Thursday, April 11, 1:00pm - 3:30pm
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