The Persistence of Plastic

Though plastic is durable, cheap, and common in everyday items, it comes at a large environmental cost.

“Micro Ocean Plastic,” by OceanBlueProject.org is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Plastic, a man-made petrochemical product, can take thousands of years to decompose if at all. Meanwhile, we just keep making more of it. Over time, plastics break down into smaller and smaller particles, to the point where they are virtually invisible. These tiny plastic particles are commonly referred to as “microplastics.” Other sources of microplastics are the tiny plastic fibers or “microfibers” in clothing (think of your favorite fleece jacket or yoga pants), or the microplastic beads made for some cosmetics, body wash products or even toothpaste. When washed down the drain, these plastic microfibers and microbeads are tiny enough to pass right through the wastewater treatment plants and into the river, or even if they are removed, may re-enter the environment through the sewage sludge applied to fields as fertilizer. Besides all the plastic litter that you can see, invisible microplastics are everywhere. They are now found in our soils, throughout the oceans, in the Arctic and Antarctic ice, in our once pristine mountain lakes, and are light enough to be carried by the wind high into the atmosphere to all corners of the Earth.

If that weren’t distressing enough, plastics have recently been found inside our bodies. They are in the food we eat (particularly in seafoods), the water we drink (highest levels in bottled water), and even the air we breathe (highest levels downwind from big cities). A study recently published in Environmental Science & Technology estimates that the average American consumes 74,000 to 121,000 particles of microplastic per year. Plastics are also known to act like sponges that concentrate chemicals and toxins from the environment and into our bodies. While the effects are still unknown, much more research is needed to understand the impacts of microplastics on human health.  We do know that plastic can be devastating to the countless birds, fish, and animals that ingest it or are trapped by it. Suffice it to say that plastic in all sizes and forms are rapidly accumulating and damaging the oceans and marine life, our environment, and ultimately ourselves.

So, what can we as individuals do about such an overwhelming and complex problem? Here are ten immediate actions you can take:

  • Reduce the use of single-use plastic products (cups, packages, plastic bags, plastic utensils and straws, etc.) Bring your own re-useable grocery and produce bags to the store. Bring your own silverware to the office, or travel mug to the coffee shop.
  • Stop buying bottled water. Use a re-useable water bottle.
  • Eat whole foods. Processed and ready-to-eat foods require more food packaging. Moreover, microplastic and chemicals in food packages can leach into the food itself.
  • Buy foods in bulk. This can reduce the amount of food packaging needed.
  • Make things last and buy used items. This reduces the need for new plastic packaging and saves money too.
  • Recycle properly. Be sure recyclables are clean and properly sorted.
  • Avoid all personal care products with microbeads. These products may include “polyethylene,” “polystyrene” or “polypropylene” in the list of ingredients. (The good news is many countries, including the US, have begun banning their sales.)
  • Buy natural clothing materials instead of synthetics and microfiber.
  • Use devices in the washing machine to trap microfibers. Search your internet browser for ‘washing machine lint filter’ or ‘microfiber catching laundry bag’ for more information.)
  • Pick up litter and trash. Anything washed into a storm drain will end up in the creek and eventually in the ocean. Participate in beach and river cleanups sponsored by your local organizations and agencies. Learn more about the streets to creek connection by visiting www.streetstocreeks.org.

Most importantly, stay informed on the issue of plastic pollution and help to make others aware of the problem. As consumers, think about how we support the products, manufacturers and industries that perpetuate and profit from our daily habits (which are all too often governed by convenience) – the things we eat, the things we do, and the things we buy. Support bans on single-use plastic and support organizations that address plastic pollution.  Plastic persists in our environment and is a huge global challenge that will require the actions of individuals, organizations, industries, and governments around the world working together.

This article was authored by Benjamin Kageyama, of the City of Healdsburg, Public Works Department, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

 

Help Keep the Leaves and Grass Out of Storm Drains

Fall is just around the corner, and many of us will be spending our crisp Saturday afternoons trying to catch up with the week’s falling leaves and debris from our trees and landscaping that are shedding, preparing for the winter months ahead.

For the folks in urban areas with storm drains on their neighborhood streets, extra precautions should be taken in maintaining these drains. All of the water that hits these storm drains goes untreated and is sent directly into our creeks, rivers, bays, where eventually it reaches the ocean. Storm water is not sent to the local wastewater treatment facility. It is our responsibility to make sure that nothing but rain water flows from our yards into storm drains.

The rainy season will start soon, and clogged storm drains can lead to localized flooding. You can help by placing yard waste in appropriate bins that come with your local trash services. Never rake or blow leaves into the street. Blow the grass trimmings and leaves back into your yard and advise your neighbor of the same. Allowing yard waste into the street or down the storm drain can cause blockages or serious damage to the storm drain infrastructure.

Don’t miss out on helping with drainage from your property when it rains- rake up that pile of leaves in your front yard. If you choose to mow instead, set the mower to mulch or collect the grass clippings in a bagging attachment. You can also collect this yard waste and add to your garden compost, just ensure your compost bins are contained to keep the nutrient rich water from leaching into the storm system as well. For those of us who utilize a landscape maintenance company, remember that we are ultimately responsible to make certain the landscaper does not blow any leaves or yard trimmings into streets or storm drains.

Some make the argument that leaves fall naturally from the trees into the streams, but we should not be adding to this effect. Excessive decay of this large amount of organic matter can add carbon and nitrogen to our area waterbodies through its decomposition. This can create algae blooms and harm the wildlife that are living in the water.

Here are some additional do’s and don’ts that we should keep in mind in addition to our yard waste:

  • Do not dump items such as household paints and cleaners, garden pesticides and fertilizers, or used motor oils into storm drains. Not only is this illegal, it will pollute the watershed causing harm to wildlife.
  • Pick up after the dog so the rains do not wash bacteria from the waste into the storm drain.
  • Maintain your irrigation system. Adjust the sprinkler heads to ensure you are only watering your lawn and fix any leaks that may pop up.
  • Take charge for your neighborhood’s storm drain and make sure it is not clogged with branches, leaves and other debris.

Check with your local municipality and see if there is a special fall collection event for pickup of yard debris. If this service is available to you, place the yard waste curbside in bags and bundle and tie the large branches for easy pick up. If you see a clogged storm drain in your neighborhood or anything but rain going down the drain, please report it immediately. For reporting numbers in your area, head over to www.rrwatershed.org/spill-reporting.

Remember – “Only Rain Down the Drain.”

This article was authored by Jason Benson of the City of Ukiah, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Our Hidden Gem –Conservation Corps North Bay

September 21 – 28, 2019 is Creek Week in the Russian River Watershed! Join in with this spirit of environmental conservation and community enrichment by getting educated, invested and involved.

Creek Week is an opportunity for the community to collectively take on the task of cleaning the creeks of litter and debris,  but did you know Conservation Corps North Bay is taking on the task year-round? This unique non‑profit organization takes an amazingly well-rounded approach to protecting our community by creating opportunities for the “corpsmembers” to earn their high school diploma, along with providing a job and developing the real-life skills and discipline these individuals need to thrive.

Under the supervision of a highly qualified and capable management team, Conservation Corps North Bay (CCNB) trains its corpsmembers to offer a wide range of services which profit and enrich the community.  Their Natural Resources division provides assistance with a variety of tasks including trail construction and maintenance, flood prevention, fire fuel reduction and habitat restoration; among many other services. They also operate a Zero Waste program which benefits the community by providing:

  • Outreach and community education regarding recycling services and receptacles;
  • Storm drain labeling throughout Northern California to help prevent illegal dumping of motor oil and other harmful pollutants into our waterways;
  • Used tire and bulky item collecting, recycling, and disposing; and
  • E-waste and mattress collection events!

As of mid-July, CCNB has partnered with the Mattress Recycling Council to accept used mattresses at their Cotati location every Monday to Thursday between the hours of 7:30am to 3:30pm free of charge.  Not only do they collect e-waste free of charge, they even go to your location and haul it off for you!  Follow this link for more information on the CCNB Zero Waste program and to view their events page: www.ccnorthbay.org/zero-waste.

You can contribute to the health of the Russian River ecosystem by participating in creek and river cleanup events throughout the watershed.  To view Creek Week events in your area, visit www.rrwatershed.org’s Blog.

This article was authored by Jon Caldwell, City of Cotati, Department of Public Works, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Creek Week 2019

Do You Know the Relationship Between Low Impact Development and Water Quality?

August is the last official month of the summer, and the time to celebrate National Water Quality Month!

The 110-mile Russian River and all its tributaries move through many active communities and working lands which can affect water quality. Some of the main categories of water quality impacts can include chemicals, bacteria, sediment, and temperature. Rain water that lands on our rooftops, driveways, and streets ultimately reach our tributary creeks, river and ocean, carrying with it remnants of the long journey. These remnants, many invisible, can include:

  • Gasoline and oil from small spills or leaking automobiles
  • Bacteria and pathogens from animal and human waste
  • Sediment from loose soil
  • Metals from pesticides, fungicides, cars, and building materials

The good news is that there are strategies to help keep our local waters clean! One strategy is to offset the hard surfaces (such as roofs, gutters, and roads) that increase runoff by installing low impact development (LID) features. This strategy is being deployed throughout the Russian River watershed, and is required for many new development projects.

What is a LID? LID is a planning and design strategy used to reduce potentially harmful impacts on water associated with increased stormwater runoff from construction. LID uses an innovative technique to imitate how water would flow prior to the constructed development. This approach is based on infiltrating, filtering, storing, and sometimes evaporating stormwater runoff before it enters our rivers and creeks. When stormwater enters a LID, it begins to infiltrate or seep through rocks and vegetation. As it infiltrates the ground, it is filtered through layers of rocks, soil, and bacteria which reduce many pollutants in the stormwater. The excess clean water either infiltrates into the ground or is carried out through our storm drains to the creeks.

These LID design strategies come in all shapes and sizes, whether it be living rooftops or vegetated swales. Look around as you take a stroll around downtown or new buildings and you may start to notice all the LID in your area. Some LID benefits include:

  • Reducing the flow of water that can cause erosion or flooding
  • Recharging our groundwater basin
  • Decreasing the impacts of new developments on local hydrology
  • Preventing trash and debris from flowing down the storm drains
  • Treating pollutants and protecting water quality

While our cities, counties, architects and contractors work to decrease stormwater pollution, there is still much that residents can do!

Check out our website www.rrwatershed.org/project/low-impact-development for more information on low impact development and ways you can help keep stormwater runoff clean.

A homeowner’s and landowner’s Guide to Beneficial Stormwater Management Slow it. Spread it. Sink it. Store it! is available at http://sonomarcd.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Slow-it-Spread-it-Sink-it-Store-it.pdf

This article was authored by Christina Leung, of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Water Conservation, Car Washes, and Water Waste

Summer is upon us! We have completed our spring cleanup around the yard, made sure no standing water is present on our properties attracting mosquitos and setup our outdoor furniture. Summer also marks an important time of the year for water conservation. By using water wisely in the summer, it helps preserve our healthy watershed for the remainder of the year. Even though we received a lot of rainfall this winter, it is important to minimize water waste throughout our community.

Here are some ways in which you can reduce your summer water use:

  • Manually Check Irrigation System and Repair Leaks: By manually running through each irrigation station, you can accurately assess your system and make sure no water is being wasted. Fix any leaks that appear and prevent runoff.
  • Know When to Water: Make sure your irrigation system is running at night or in the early morning to avoid increased evaporation and wind interference.
  • Rethink the Watershed on Your Property: Redirect downspouts toward vegetated landscape or install rain chains to direct water to a catchment system. These simple measures will send rainwater where it can be used by plants or absorbed into the ground instead of to storm drains.
  • Plant Natives: Plant drought-tolerant, low water use plants. Natives are recommended since they are adapted to our climate and will demand less resources.
  • Add Mulch: Make sure to add mulch around plants to help insulate the soil, to provide a buffer from heat, help retain water, and prevents weeds that would otherwise compete for resources.
  • Convert your lawn: Lawn uses a majority of outdoor irrigation because of spray irrigation inefficiencies. Remove lawn, plant natives, and install drip irrigation.
  • Rebate Programs: Local water utilities offer rebates to help customers conserve water. Check your local water utilities website to see which rebates are available.
  • Rethink your summer car washing: Automatic car washes are required by law to properly dispose of their water waste. Everything that’s been stuck to your car—gasoline, oil, heavy metal particles, tar, and particulate matter from exhaust fumes—has the potential to flow from your wash area to the nearest storm drain and eventually reach the Russian River. Most commercial car wash facilities will filter rinse water and direct it to a sanitary sewer where it will get treated and possibly reused (recycled water).

For online information about water conservation, green car wash facilities in Sonoma County or to report water waste, go to the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership website at: http://www.savingwaterpartnership.org/

This article was authored by Chad Singleton, of Sonoma Water, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Is Overwatering Really So Bad?

Even though the Russian River watershed has received roughly 130 percent of the average rainfall this season, it is time to discuss the impacts of overwatered landscapes as the dry weather returns and irrigation controllers turn on.

You are most likely aware of the traditional reasons to properly water your landscaping: save water and money, address water-wasting leaky irrigation lines, respond to drought conditions, and keep landscapes alive! But what you may not know is, overwatering is actually an enforceable code violation in many jurisdictions.

Local government is being compelled by the State to comply with regulations that enforce upon us all to use less water and to use it more wisely, regardless of how much rain has fallen. On May 31, 2018, Governor Brown signed two bills which “make water conservation a California way of life.” SB 606 and AB 1668 call for creation of new urban efficiency standards for indoor and outdoor water use. Starting in 2023, the indoor water use standard will be 55 gallons per person per day.

Outdoor use is already heavily regulated and will continue to be regulated for the long-term. Allowing your lawn to be overwatered to the point that it is flowing in the gutter in front of your home is not just against code, it is enforceable by fines and even water shut-off (in some jurisdictions). Regulations also prohibit irrigation water from entering the storm drain system. Irrigation water entering the storm drain requires local government to assess the impact that overwatering may have had on a creek, which all storm drains connect to. The assessment could include an investigation of your property, the gutter, the storm drains and the creek. It can involve pictures, questioning, sampling and reporting¾all of which can be billed to those in violation of overwatering.

Overwatering can lead to some other undesirable consequences such as a photo and detailed critique posted on social media by a concerned neighbor. A code enforcement officer knocking on your door at 7:30 a.m. is a wake‑up call we would all prefer to avoid. A notice of violation from your City including fines is a notice you really don’t want to receive, and the jurisdiction doesn’t want to issue. However, due to the growing number and magnitude of State mandated regulations on water use and pollution prevention, these scenarios are unfortunately likely to become more common.

Incorporating proper landscaping and watering practices can help you avoid these situations and truly become a water hero. There are roughly 345 different landscaping techniques to optimize your water use. Details can be found in the Russian River Watershed Association’s Russian River-Friendly Landscaping Guidelines. Visit www.rrwatershed.org/project/rrflg to view and download a copy of the River-Friendly Landscaping Guidelines.

This article was authored by Nicholas Bennett, of the City of Rohnert Park, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Fire Safe Landscaping Does Not Start with Landscaping

There has been a lot of advice on how to landscape our homes to keep wildfires away (including this column). However, a critical lesson sometimes gets overlooked; our homes are also fuel for a wildfire.

Wildfires are not limited to wildland. All too often, once a wildfire reaches a neighborhood, it is the homes in that neighborhood that provide the fuel.

Fire Safe landscaping must start with your home.

Get in the Zone

Zone 1 is what firefighting professionals call the first 30 feet from your home. This is the most critical area around your home and your last line of defense to an approaching wildfire (as shown in the illustration to the right). However, with enough wind, embers can fly over Zone 1 to land on your home. Think of any place on your home where leaves collect-this is also where windblown embers can collect. Rain gutters, roof valleys, dormers, eves, awnings and decks are all places where embers can collect. Keeping these areas clean and free of debris is a good start but there is more you can do.

If you plan to re-roof your home, select a fire-resistant roofing material that meets the UL 790 Class A rating. Class A roofing material resists ignition by embers better than lesser materials and can provide you with critical time to evacuate and may even save your home. You don’t have to break the bank to do this, standard asphalt shingles are available with a Class A rating and they are readily available at most home centers.

Don’t neglect the architectural features on your roof and cover them with fire resistant materials. Windblown embers can collect against dormers or gables. These features are frequently built with conventional siding materials like plywood or chip board. Embers can easily ignite these materials bypassing the most fire-resistant roofing materials. If your home has these features, adding metal siding or fiber-cement materials that meet California’s wildland urban interface (WUI) standards can help your home resist embers.

If your roof has eves or overhangs, then fire block your soffits. Fire blocking starves a fire of oxygen and prevents it from spreading. Ironically, fire blocking material does not have to be fire-proof. It just has to keep the fire from getting fuel (air/oxygen).  Materials that are rated for use in the WUI are your friend here. CalFire has set up a searchable list of WUI approved materials for all kinds of homes at this link: http://osfm.fire.ca.gov/licensinglistings/licenselisting_bml_searchcotest

Densely developed urban and suburban neighborhoods can benefit from fire resistant fences to prevent fires from spreading house-to-house. When a fence catches fire it can bring that fire right up to your home like a fuse. Incorporating stone, masonry or metal into your fence design can be both an architectural statement and a shield against a fire. If you cannot afford to build a full-length fire resistive fence, consider adding non-combustible features like metal gates or masonry panels into the fence to “cut the fuse”. If you have a gate where your fence meets your home, this is the perfect place to start by replacing wooden gates with metal ones. FEMA has published a fact sheet on the design of fire resistant fences which is available online at
www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1652-20490-2634/fema_p_737_fs_14.pdf

Regardless of the kind of fence you have, always avoid stacking flammable material like firewood or lumber against it. A good rule of thumb is to never store flammable material like firewood and lumber anywhere in Zone 1.

Decks are very difficult to protect from wildfire. Readily available decking material is not fire resistant and most fire-resistant construction techniques are expensive. In addition, decks are often built on top of a slope in direct line with the most likely approach of a wildfire. If you are building a new deck, consider locating it away from potential pathways for a wildfire or construct a patio instead. FEMA has published a fact sheet on how to locate a deck to protect your home from a fire. It is available online at
www.fema.gov/media-library-data/20130726-1652-20490-4409/fema_p_737_fs_13.pdf

Flirt with Firefighters

Firefighters are attracted to defensible space and if you attract enough of them, they might bring their fire truck. When firefighters respond to wildland fires they need defensible areas to set up and fight the fire. If your home has defensible space and access to water (nearby fire hydrant or a pool) firefighters can use your home as a staging area. For those who live on the wildland urban interface, this is the best defense against wildfire for which you can hope. If you have a pool, consider installing a portable pump that firefighters can use. If you have the space, include wide driveways and large turnaround spaces in your landscaping design. Don’t hide these features with tall landscaping along your street. Many local fire departments offer free fire safety evaluations and will provide guidance on how to make your property firefighter friendly and wildfire resistant.

More Information:

This article was authored by Eric Janzen of the City of Cloverdale, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Safe Medicine Disposal Program

Have you ever opened your medicine cabinet, picked up a bottle, and realized it has been expired for years or that you had more than you would ever need? A survey in Los Angeles County found that 59% of respondents had medications in their homes that were expired or no longer needed, with 45% of these people not knowing what to do with them. In California there are approximately 9.2 retail prescriptions written per year per person. This makes a whopping 359 million prescriptions a year! That’s a lot of medications that may be sitting in homes, or are being dumped into landfills, or flushed into our water resources. When flushed down the drain, some medications are not completely removed by certain kinds of wastewater treatment plants. Proper disposal of unused pharmaceuticals helps protect the environment and keeps the medications out of the wrong hands.

Safe Medicine Disposal Program
To address this issue, the Russian River Watershed Association (RRWA) has been partnering with local agencies, pharmacies, and law enforcement offices to provide a Safe Medicine Disposal Program with drop-off locations throughout Sonoma County and Mendocino County. The Safe Medicine Disposal Program creates a free resource for residents to drop off unused and unwanted medications in a safe manner that protects our families, wildlife and watershed. Residents of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties can view a list of drop-off locations, and access information on how to participate in the mail-back programs, by visiting  www.safemedicinedisposal.org.

Why does safe medicine disposal matter?
Medications can be a threat to anyone and anything who it wasn’t prescribed to. When medications, especially prescription medications that you no longer need, are left in your home they could easily get into the wrong hands. Unused and readily accessible medicines have the potential to be misused and abused by teens and adults while colorful pills and packaging can be attractive for young children. In order to avoid this misuse and just to remove clutter, some people end up flushing medications or throwing them in the trash. These disposal methods can affect our water quality. When medicines are flushed, they are transported to our waste water treatment plants. With all the new and innovative prescription medications, some treatment plants are not equipped to handle all the chemicals, and they can be released into our rivers and streams or infiltrated into the ground.  When medications are thrown away, they are taken to landfills. During the rainy season, these medications can become runoff and can potentially make their way into the groundwater or to our rivers. When introduced into our environment, these medications can greatly affect wildlife, pets, and people who are visiting the river.

Highlights of SB212
To address the growing need for proper medication and sharps disposal, California signed Senate Bill 212 into law in 2018 which will create a Drugs and Sharps Take-Back Program for all California residents. This law will be the first in the nation to establish a comprehensive, producer-funded take-back program to provide safe and convenient disposal options for both home generated pharmaceutical drugs and sharps waste. The manufacturers of these products will be responsible for setting up the program, paying for the program and providing comprehensive public education to promote consumer participation in the program. New collection sites will be established for the take-back of medications. Individuals without the ability to deliver their medications to a bin will be able to request prepaid, preaddressed mailing envelopes for safe disposal of their medications.  Sharps will be collected through a mail-back program where consumers will receive a sharps container and mail-back kit at time of purchase. There will be State oversite of this program through the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle). It is expected that this program will be in place in 2022. Once implemented, this program will greatly expand the existing take-back opportunities in Sonoma County and Mendocino County.  In the meantime, residents are encouraged to utilize the existing Safe Medication Disposal Program www.safemedicinedisposal.org.

Sharps
It is illegal to dispose of home-generated syringes/needles in the garbage. This includes needles, syringes and lancets used for the care of people and animals. More and more sharps are being found in our city streets, parks and along our streams and rivers. Additionally, sharps are being illegally disposed of in curbside garbage and recycling bins creating a hazard for workers who sort and come in contact with these materials. By 2022, convenient disposal will be available for unwanted sharps through the State program required by SB 212. Until that time, there are other options available for sharps disposal through local Household Hazardous Waste Programs and mail back options.

Disposal of medicines and sharps
There are several permanent disposal options for medicines in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties:

There are also several annual events for disposal options:

  • The Federal Drug Enforcement Agency sponsors two drug “Take-Back Day” events per year. The next drug “Take-Back Day” event will be held on Saturday, April 27 from 10 AM – 2 PM. Locations are still being added so check the website in early April for updated locations at dea.gov
  • SCWMA offers weekly toxics collection events at rotating locations across Sonoma County. A full calendar can be found at org/toxics/comm_toxics_collect.asp. Appointments can be scheduled by calling

(707) 795-2025.*

Sharps must be in FDA approved containers in order to be accepted for disposal.

 

*Controlled substances are not accepted at the location mentioned above.

This article was co-authored by Lisa Steinman, County of Sonoma, Courtney Scott, Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, and Christina Leung, RRWA Staff, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.

Our Invisible but Critical Water Source

You can’t see them. You can’t swim in them. But groundwater aquifers are one of the most important sources of water in the North Coast. Aquifers are water-rich underground areas. They aren’t like lakes or pools but are composed of water-filled areas between rocks, sands, and gravels.

Plants and animals benefit from groundwater when it’s near the surface, and feeds creeks and streams. Humans tap into aquifers through wells used for drinking, irrigating crops and operating businesses. People who live in rural areas rely almost exclusively on groundwater, and while cities in Sonoma and Mendocino counties get most of their water from the Russian River, groundwater provides a critical back-up source that is used during droughts or in emergencies.

In some parts of California, like the Central Valley, aquifers are large, continuous and relatively close to the Earth’s surface.  But aquifers in coastal counties are much more complex. Separated by mountains, hills and geologic features, including earthquake faults, there are 14 identified groundwater basins in Sonoma County and six basins in Mendocino County. This geologic complexity explains why one landowner can have a productive 50-foot deep well, while their neighbor’s 200-foot deep well provides only a trickle of water.

Studies conducted by the US Geological Survey (USGS) found that water in some of the deeper local aquifers has been underground for more than 20,000 years while water levels in aquifers closer to the surface can fluctuate seasonally, dropping during the summer when pumping is heavier and increasing during the rainy season.

Unfortunately, too many wells, too much pumping, and droughts can temporarily – and in some cases permanently – impact aquifers, resulting in dry wells, poor water quality, depleted creeks, and in some cases sinking of the land surface. In areas close to the ocean and bays (like Southern Sonoma Valley), the loss of groundwater can result in salt water migrating into groundwater basins.

Some communities in the Central Valley where groundwater has been over-pumped have seen the land surface drop by 30 feet, damaging roads, canals and bridges. Declining groundwater levels and polluted run-off from past agricultural practices have also degraded water quality in several Central Valley communities, resulting in residents having to use bottled water for drinking and bathing.

These problems were the motivation for the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which became California law in 2015.  To make sure that people fairly share and wisely use and protect this shared resource, SGMA requires communities to manage groundwater by, first, creating new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). In Sonoma and Mendocino counties, GSAs were created for the Santa Rosa Plain and Petaluma, Sonoma and Ukiah valleys.

The second step of SGMA is to gain a scientific, quantifiable understanding of current and future problems, and to develop solutions through the creation of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP).  The third step of SGMA is to implement the GSP and obtain sustainable conditions over a 20-year time period, with check-ins every five years. If local communities fail in taking any one these steps, the state can take over management of the basin. So far, local GSAs are on track and are working on the GSPs.

SGMA requires that the GSPs be developed through a transparent process with public input and community engagement. The GSAs all hold regularly scheduled public meetings, and materials are available for review.

How local well owners will be affected by SGMA will depend on the problems (and solutions) identified in the GSPs. One thing is certain:  SGMA prohibits the GSAs from requiring residential groundwater users to install meters on their wells. In regard to costs, if aquifers are healthy and there are minimal concerns about future impacts, the GSP could simply require ongoing monitoring and reporting of groundwater levels through test wells and voluntary programs. If problems are identified, the GSP could identify potentially more costly programs (like water conservation) or projects (like recharging the aquifers) to ensure that groundwater is sustainable. In some areas with severe problems, the GSA may be required to limit groundwater use.

Locally, the four GSAs each received a grant of one million dollars to help prepare the GSPs. If more funding is needed, SGMA allows groundwater users to be charged for the costs of running the GSA and developing and implementing the GSP. The Santa Rosa Plain GSA (encompassing the general valley floor area from Cotati to Windsor and from the foot of Sonoma Mountain to Sebastopol) is currently looking at a possible groundwater sustainability fee to cover costs (up to $13 a year for rural residential well owners and up to $26 per acre-foot for other groundwater users). The Santa Rosa Plain GSA will be holding a series of community meetings on March 4, 6 and 7. For more information on the Santa Rosa Plain fee, go to www.santarosaplaingroundwater.org/finances/fee.

This article was authored by Ann DuBay, Sonoma County Water Agency, on behalf of RRWA. RRWA (www.rrwatershed.org) is an association of local public agencies in the Russian River Watershed that have come together to coordinate regional programs for clean water, habitat restoration, and watershed enhancement.