The Sonoma County Water District has proposed to abandon a high-priced, 20-year water project due to recent conservation success.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is faced with a decision whether or not to abandon the water pipeline project which would cost an estimated $1 billion in hard economic times but guarantee more water to the county.

This decision would follow the belief that water consumption will remain low and continued conservation efforts will continue to work.

Per its water rights, the Sonoma County Water Agency can currently use up to 75,000 acre-feet of water each year.

Brad Sherwood, Public Information Officer for the Sonoma County Water Agency, claimed that this year approximately 51,000 acre-feet of water were used.

“Cutting back on water use will save our water for the future,” Sherwood said.

The agency had proposed changes that were estimated to cost $1 billion dollars. But Sherwood said the Water Project has been modified over the years because of changing circumstances.

“In the past three years, major changes in conditions have occurred, which make it infeasible and impractical for the agency to carry out the water project,” Sherwood said.

These changes include:

  • reduced flows into the Russian River from the Eel River
  • the issuance of new federal requirements that restrict the Agency’s ability to use the channel of Dry Creek to convey water from Warm Springs Dam to the Russian River
  • climate change
  • new strategies for managing demands for water
  • energy, and economic conditions that make it unlikely that the agency’s water contractors would impose the water rates necessary to finance the project.

The Marin Municipal Water District General Manager, Paul Helliker, stated that although water demand has been low recently, it does not mean this is going to be the case in the future.

The Marin Water District purchased 25 percent of its water from Sonoma. The only cities purchasing more are the city of Novato, at 80-percent, North Marin and the city of Petaluma.

The impact of the decision is most felt during hot summers when people begin using more water.

“Many of the facilities anticipated to be constructed for the water project serve, principally, peak summer demand,” Sherwood said.

Helliker doesn’t believe conservation is the best choice, “The Environmental Impact Report includes what the impact would be. The assumption is that they [Sonoma County Water Agency] will meet all demands by conservation.”

The $1 billion dollar price tag may have been a large overestimation. The Marin Municipal Water District recently executed a similar project where only $3 million was spent per mile to lay pipe, Helliker said.
Helliker said in his opinion he would be over estimating the cost of the Sonoma County Water Agency project if he were to claim it would cost just $150 million.

This cost would be spread over the next 25-years Helliker stated.

Bill Kocher, from the city of Santa Cruz Water Department, added, “I don’t know how people came up with that figure.”

Helliker was greatly surprised when he heard Sonoma County was going to meet with the board to abandon the projects.

“Good analysis has not been done,” Helliker said.

The Marin County Water District met after the Sonoma County Supervisors met last week. The district agreed on a resolution to urge the supervisors to request staff suggestions and analyze how much could actually be done with just conservation.

“Financial constraints upon the Agency and its water contractors have made it more difficult to finance large, costly capital projects,” Sherwood said.

New strategies such as modifying operation of the Russian River system, evaluating impacts of climate change on future water supply, working with stakeholders to promote sound, fact-based water supply planning, and overcoming organizational fragmentation to promote efficiency of water system operations and water management planning have been listed as alternative plans by the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Kocher claimed that the City of Santa Cruz is currently trying to protect against drought. He estimates spending as much as $100 million in the next year on water projects.

“We [Santa Cruz] have cut water use by 17 percent since last year,” Kocher claimed.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will discuss the county’s water plans in the coming weeks. After completing research outreach, staff will report to the Board on the input received, changes to the water supply strategies and a water supply strategic plan.

Read the staff report from the Marin Municipal Water District as well as Paul Helliker’s comments in the staff reports section of PublicCEO.

Louis Dettorre can be reached at