Napa County Seal

The Napa County Seal.

J.L. Sousa/Register

Napa County will try to convince the state that it is already making sure that people don’t overtax the reservoir of groundwater beneath the Napa Valley floor.

That’s an alternative path under new California groundwater protection laws. Otherwise, the community must form a groundwater sustainability agency by July and this agency must create a groundwater sustainability plan by 2022.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday decided to take the alternate route.

It voted to submit to the state a 1,000-plus page basin analysis report, including appendices, that concludes the county has managed groundwater in a sustainable fashion over the past decade.

“We do have a very important task to make sure we’re protecting a very importance resource – water,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Alfredo Pedroza said.

Napa County officials took the position that the county isn’t trying to avoid the tasks mandated by the state by pursing the alternative route. Rather, they said it is already doing them.

“The alternative is not just fast and missing pieces,” consultant Vicki Kretsinger Grabert said. “It covers everything a comparable (groundwater sustainability plan) would cover.”

But Chris Malan and Gary Margadant are among the local residents who prefer that the county form a groundwater sustainability agency that creates a groundwater sustainability plan.

Malan said that this approach would foster more public involvement.

“They’re fast-tracking it,” Malan said.

A groundwater sustainability agency could be the county or a combination of local agencies. It would have the power to conduct investigations, measure and limit groundwater pumping, impose fees on property owners for groundwater management and enforce the groundwater management plan that it creates.

The county must submit its alternate route request and the basin analysis report to the state Department of Water Resources by Jan. 1. The public will be able to submit comments to the department. It’s unclear when the department will announce whether it will grant the county’s alternate route request.

California passed its Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014. Places in the San Joaquin Valley far south of Napa County in recent years have seen groundwater levels plunge 100 feet lower than previous records and, as a result, land in some locations is sinking by as much as two inches a month.

“Local agencies now have the power to assess the conditions of their local groundwater basins and take the necessary steps to bring those basins in a state of chronic long-term overdraft into balance,” Gov. Jerry Brown said in a state release.

If the locals don’t do the job, the state will step in and do it for them. The state won’t step in as long as local agencies can prove they are managing groundwater supplies in a sustainable way, said a December 2014 legislative fact sheet released by the state.

The fact sheet also defined “sustainable.”

“Simply put, sustainable groundwater management means managing our precious water so that it is available for future generations, while balancing the more immediate needs of our economy, environment and essential human health and safety,” it said.

Napa County is required to look at the Napa Valley subbasin, which is beneath the Napa Valley floor. The subbasin does not include the Coombsville and Carneros areas and the hillsides, where many of the area’s groundwater problems have been reported.

The basin analysis report found the Napa Valley subbasin has a sustainable yield of 17,000 acre-feet to 20,000 acre-feet annually. By comparison, groundwater pumping averaged about 17,506 acre-feet annually during the recent drought.

Research also breaks down how this 17,506 acre-feet of well water is used. That use includes vineyards at 12,263-acre feet, rural wineries at 1,222 acre-feet and municipalities at 317 acre-feet.

An acre-foot is about 325,000 gallons.

Spring groundwater depths for the alluvial aquifer beneath the main part of the Napa Valley floor are usually five feet to 35 feet, the basin analysis found.

“Overall, the depths are quite shallow relative to other subbasins in the state, particularly in the south part of the Central Valley,” Grabert told supervisors. “In springtime in particular, when levels are replenished, the basin is quite full.”

The goal of the state law is to avoid “undesirable results” for groundwater. These results include chronic lowering of groundwater levels, significant land subsidence, significant seawater intrusion into groundwater and groundwater use that significantly affects rivers.

Malan has argued that Napa County is already seeing undesirable results and that this warrants forming a groundwater sustainability agency. For example, she said groundwater pumping has sapped Napa River flows in such areas as St. Helena, given that groundwater can feed rivers.

The county sees the interaction between groundwater and the Napa River as being unchanged over a long period of time. Reaches of the Napa River even in the 1930s had low to no-flow conditions that increased during extended droughts, a county report said.

Grabert made another point about the state law to supervisors.

“It’s not requiring we turn back the clock to pristine conditions where absolutely no development, no land use, no water use have occurred,” she said.

County supervisors have been aiming at taking the alternate route to fulfill the state groundwater laws since March 2015. They needed very little discussion on Tuesday before deciding to stay that course.

Napa County is well-suited to take the alternate route because it has an ongoing groundwater sustainability program, a county report said. The effort includes groundwater monitoring at 113 sites, annual groundwater condition reports and public outreach through the Watershed Information and Conservation Council.

County Public Works Director Steven Lederer said the county allotted about $500,000 to such efforts this year and he doesn’t see the expenditure as decreasing.

“The fastest way to unsustainability, the fastest way to having the state come and take action is taking our eye off the ball when it comes to monitoring,” he told supervisors.

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Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa