Summer is upon us, and as the hills in our region turn from the lush green of spring to the tawny brown dotted with the dark green of oaks, pines and redwoods, we are confronted with the arid nature of our climate. We might collectively feel like water is more precious at this time of year, and our instinctive nature as Californians would incline us to take shorter showers, wash the car less and make sure we water only as much as needed.
While water availability and allocation has been an issue for decades across the state, the recent drought (of which much of the state suffers) it is more important than ever to know where our water comes from, the pressures our water system faces and what we can do to help ensure this natural resource remains in abundance for all our communities. After all, water is life.
Rue Furch, one of Redwood Chapter’s stalwart volunteers, is a member of the Groundwater Sustainability Agency for the Santa Rosa groundwater basin. The GSA was formed in 2017 to advise management of the local basin. It is one of many GSAs around California tasked with developing, implementing, and enforcing a basin’s groundwater sustainability program.
Here, Furch answers some pertinent questions about water in our region and state, conservation and how we can be more cognizant and proactive with our water resources.
REDWOOD CHAPTER: In this present time, as we are moving into summer and fall and we start thinking more about water conservation, how does groundwater play into the conversation and why is thinking about it important?
RUE FURCH: The State of California is the last state in the nation to regulate groundwater and has now recognized the interaction of surface and groundwater more formally. While the seasonal rains have provided more water than had been expected this year, we still require sustainable water supply for increasing uses. Our region historically had fewer draws on groundwater. But as agriculture has shifted from dry-land farming to more reliance on irrigation, our population has increased, and our private wells have proliferated—our reliance on groundwater has increased.
While some groundwater is in aquifers that should be considered in geologic time as some hold sea water, most of our wells draw from aquifers that are fed by surface water, which percolates slowly into the soils recharging the natural underground storage areas. The greatest demand for water in our region is in the hotter late summer/early autumn season, long after the rains have supplied rivers and streams with flow or provided recharge to our groundwater basins.
In order to ensure adequate supply to maintain our streamflows to prevent stream drawdown (for human uses, fish and other habitat), and preserve our groundwater for autumn uses, year-round conservation is necessary EVERY year, not just in years when we perceive shortages. Using more than is replaced is not sustainable, and we are too often lulled by the appearance of our region’s abundance.
SC: Why do people who live in urban areas and are not on wells need to be aware of the groundwater situation?
RF: Interaction between surface water and groundwater is established science. If an urban area is supplied by surface water (the Russian, Eel and Klamath Rivers, etc.), the water used affects and is affected by stored groundwater. Rivers and streams can be “de-watered” by too much pumping from connective aquifers (i.e. groundwater). Urban areas also rely on wells, some as back-up sources, or, in the case of Sebastopol, entirely on wells.
Urban areas also rely on our local farms for food, which primarily depend on wells for irrigation of their crops. Retaining surface water for fish and habitat can only be assured by conscious efforts to maintain flows by limiting extraction rates of both rivers and groundwater.
All of us must be protective of all our water sources in order to ensure sustainability for all uses, including what regulators term “beneficial uses,” which is pretty much everything and everyone, since water is essential to life.
SC: What is the connection between groundwater and watersheds?
RF: Geologic formations under the ground are immensely varied. Some strata allow storage of water from sources as old as when the seas filled the basins, and some are fed by rains, melting snow, streams or lakes that recharge the aquifers. A watershed is basically a basin where water flows from the hills into the bottom of the “bowl.” The ridges being the sides and lip of the bowl. Those waters are sometimes delivered by rivers or streams and sometimes by percolation through the rocks and soils into the aquifer. Gravity pulls the water downhill into the ground/aquifers in various ways and is supplied by the entire watershed.
SC: As marijuana cultivation becomes more open and prevalent, water use issues, plus contamination issues and groundwater will become even more timely a topic. How do you see the pot industry affecting our local water issues?
RF: Concern about the cumulative effects of cannabis and other water users is growing, both from the standpoints of water supply and degradation. Cannabis operations are very tightly regulated at this time. Unfortunately, not all cannabis operations are requesting permits – and that is a separate issue that will require greater funding for enforcement efforts.
The number of acres of cannabis is relatively small at this time, so its impact will be felt—if at all —in adjacent localized areas.
Local jurisdictions, the Water Quality Control Board, California Fish and Wildlife and others are all involved in regulations and enforcements of cannabis operations in order to limit impacts of cultivation, processing, transportation and other functions of the cannabis industry.
As with most things, the majority of operators are trying to do the right thing, but we’ll learn from the few “bad apples” what requirements need to be strengthened and how to limit impacts. Attention to the use and abuse of water may inform other water uses and provide guidance on necessary conditions. Much will depend on how many operations are approved, and where. Not unlike other groundwater uses, we’ll need to protect against over concentration and use of toxic chemicals.
SC: Post-fire, the loosening of regulations on building could be presenting a problem for water conservation and watershed health. What do you have to say about this?
RF: Streamlining and “loosening” of conditions for development has been a result of the horrific fires and the increased need for housing statewide. Regulations may still require conservation measures on each new or replacement development. Impacts on watersheds may not fare as well since cumulative impacts are often not considered. Increases in development can affect not only watersheds, but traffic-sheds, light pollution, hazard areas and increase potential for future natural hazards.
Sonoma County (and other jurisdictions) have approved urban growth boundaries, designated open space areas, provided stream side protections and much more in order to concentrate and condition development to protect our shared resources, including agriculture, water, timber, and all the rest.
Housing is essential. We’ve seen too many years of too many people living without housing or with inadequate housing. Now we have another wave of people who have lost everything, not just their homes, who are in need of housing. Some businesses also lost everything. A wise and thoughtful development process does not mean we have to move at a snail’s pace, but it does mean we urgently need considered progress.
SC: How can we Sierra Clubbers work to build water awareness and move to curtail development that will tax our water system more than we understand it will?
RF: Know your watershed (manmade or natural) and be involved. As the State is mandating sustainable water planning, we should know everything we can to affect our shared future. Be conscious of water use in your home, in your life, both by implementing conservation and by avoiding use of anything you wouldn’t want in your water supply.
If you have the time and inclination, be involved in the policies made in your jurisdiction, and/or be part of a local group that maintains a nearby stream or adopt a stream that is not so nearby, but you love it.
If you are able to attend meetings about proposed development, do so. If not, write letters to the decision makers to educate them on the impact you see from something they are considering. Be informed, be vocal, be effective.
Knowledge is power. Use your power for good; in your home, your neighborhood, your region—at any scope that fits your passion.