Petaluma balks at amending water treaty

Agency manager threatens to oust city
July 29, 2000

By TOBIAS YOUNG
Press Democrat Bureau

PETALUMA -- The war over North Bay water is heating up, with a skirmish in Petaluma that could threaten a 26-year-old alliance among the region's water users.

At stake are issues of water rights and conservation, and a fragile balance between future growth and a limited water supply.

The Sonoma County Water Agency has brokered a treaty among North Bay cities to share its limited supply of water. The treaty has evolved, changing 10 times since 1974.

The latest version of the treaty, called Amendment 11, endorses a $140 million expansion program to increase water diverted from the Russian River by 40 percent in an effort to meet estimates of population growth over the next 20 years. It would be paid for by increases in the cost of water. The plan also calls for more conservation and improved fish habitat.

The treaty needs approval from every city in the alliance or it fails. So far it has been approved -- sometimes reluctantly -- by every city except Petaluma.

The Petaluma City Council is expected to act on the new contract at a special meeting Monday, when it may try to force a revision and get details of how the cost will be divided among the users.

Councilman David Keller contends the Water Agency approach is outdated because it tries to draw more water from the Russian River instead of using conservation to make more efficient use of existing water, at a lower cost and with less environmental damage.

He said Petaluma and the alliance are being asked to write a blank check for the project and existing users are being forced to foot the bill for new development instead of development paying its own costs. The users could even be stuck with the bill of pending lawsuits challenging the agency's plan to increase its take from the Russian River, Keller said.

Randy Poole, the Water Agency's general manager, said if Petaluma doesn't approve the contract, he would cast the city out of the alliance, stripping it of influence in future negotiations.

"You can be in the tent, pushing the issues, or you will be on the outside," Poole told the council last week. "That's where it's at."

Poole said it would cause too much delay to try to revise the latest version of the treaty, which has been nine years in the making.

Instead, Poole said that if the city doesn't agree, he will hammer out an agreement with the other communities and Petaluma would be excluded from negotiations.

Keller accused Poole of brinkmanship and politically strong-arming the city. "I feel a bit of arm-twisting," Keller said.

Keller said Poole doesn't have the authority to exclude Petaluma, especially if Petaluma approves Amendment 11 with conditions, such as successfully resolving environmental lawsuits against taking more water from the Russian River. Keller also wants financial explanations.

"He's an employee of a district; he's not a dictator," Keller said. "He can't throw us out."

The conflict stems from the treaty that governs how water is obtained, divvied up and distributed by the Water Agency.

There already is insufficient water in the system of existing reservoirs and pipelines to meet demand. During a hot spell in May, the holding tank in Petaluma on Kastania Road was drained, leaving Petaluma residents with low water pressure and without enough water storage to fight a fire if one had broken out.

New procedures are being created to require Marin County cities to start drawing on their own reservoirs to keep Petaluma from losing its storage, officials said.

How the system works-

Water distributed by the Water Agency is drawn from the Russian River at Wohler Bridge near Forestville and supplied to about 600,000 residents in Sonoma and Marin counties, including eight users that are part of the alliance.

Those users are Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon Water District, the Forestville Water District and the North Marin Water District in Novato.

Windsor and the Marin Municipal Water District also are customers, but they were never part of the pact, have less influence over operation of the district and pay a higher price for water.

Poole said he can't delay Amendment 11 because the agency has to get to work on easing the scarcity by starting the decadelong process of getting approval to design and build new pipeline and storage facilities.

The Petaluma City Council last week heard complaints from Petaluma and Marin County residents, who urged the council to veto Amendment 11. The objections centered on the potential for increased costs, fears that additional water delivery would encourage growth, and environmental concerns.

Petaluma resident Geoff Cartwright objected to water prices being hiked by the agency. As the agency sets out to increase water production by up to 40 percent and increase conservation by 6 percent of total water use, Amendment 11 also calls for upping prices by as much as 50 percent, maybe more.

"This is clearly development exceeding capacity," Cartwright said. "It smells like a corporate welfare package to me."

Fairfax resident Jeff Hellman said his quality of life would decline with the development that comes with more water. He urged the council to reject the contract.

"You remind me of the Alamo," Hellman said. "There are incredible amounts of pressure here ... I just hope you guys hold the line."

The Petaluma Area Chamber of Commerce countered the negative testimony, saying Petaluma will need the increased water for the development that is planned within its new 20-year urban growth boundary.

Chamber President J.T. Wick said Marin County's lack of growth has caused prices to skyrocket, causing him and others to flee to Sonoma County where the cycle is threatening to repeat itself.

Kay Russo of Petaluma suggested the council was taking an obstructionist approach, using the limited water capacity to restrict growth.

"Are you going to second-guess nine years of work and all the other entities that signed off on this?" Russo asked.

Mayor wants agreement-

The council is not unanimous on the issue.

Mayor Clark Thompson and Councilman Mike Healy urged their colleagues not to reject the treaty because of Poole's threat to exclude Petaluma from future negotiations.

"He's going to go forward with this, and we're going to be left out," Thompson said.

Healy said there is little chance of making major changes at the eleventh hour.

"I think we're engaging in an enormous amount of wishful thinking," Healy said. "It looks like we're dragging our feet."

Council members Keller, Matt Maguire, Pamela Torliatt and Jane Hamilton all voiced concerns about the contract.

Keller said issues of conservation and growth need to be addressed. He said the agency could increase available water by 20 to 30 percent with conservation efforts alone, as the energy industry has done without building new power plants.

He also said Poole failed to inform Petaluma of the Marin Municipal Water District's plan to bring a new pipeline to Petaluma to draw twice the amount of water it currently uses.

Petaluma is therefore justified in asking at the last hour how that increased capacity will be paid for and how it will be used, Keller contended.

"I've provided them with everything they've ever asked for, as far as I know," Poole responded. He said the Marin pipeline was debated and approved about eight years ago, but construction was put off until more water was available.

Keller said Petaluma and other cities shouldn't pay for increased capacity to Marin County, where he suspects the water will be used for development.

Part of that water is slated to be pumped into Lagunitas Creek, one of the few remaining habitats for the federally endangered coho salmon, Poole said. Keller said he wants a written promise, because the Marin district is already pumping the minimum amount into Lagunitas as required by a court order and does not necessarily have to pump more water into the creek.

Petaluma and Water Agency officials agree there are benefits for Petaluma in the agreement.

The Water Agency wants to build a $38.4 million duplicate pipeline from the Russian River to Petaluma. The first phase of the project would be to design and build a pipeline from Cotati to Petaluma to increase capacity. The agreement also calls for up to 30 million gallons of additional storage for Petaluma.

The new pipeline would also act as a backup in case the existing 40-year-old steel pipeline fails in an earthquake or from a water surge in the pipeline caused by a power failure.

Such a failure, without a redundant pipeline, could leave Petaluma without its main water supply for as long as it takes to make repairs.

The Water Agency is also gearing up to try to meet increased demand for growth.

The Water Agency currently delivers 65,000 acre-feet annually, testing the maximum capacity of its system. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons, enough water for about four families for a year.

Currently, if the upstream cities took all the water to which they are entitled, there wouldn't be enough left in the downstream end of the pipeline to meet Petaluma and Marin County demands.

The new pipeline would be capable of supplying 101,000 acre-feet annually, enough to meet existing population growth projections for the region, Poole said.

Half of the new water would offset existing uses, according to Poole. For instance, Rohnert Park is depleting its aquifer by pumping too much water out of the ground with its wells. The increased water would help Petaluma regain its entitlement that Rohnert Park is using, Poole said.

Maguire urged the Water Agency to require more conservation than called for in the contract. He criticized the increased dependence on Russian River water, which is in turn diverting water from the Eel River.

"It's terrible environmental policy," Maguire said.

Poole said the agency is leading by example with numerous conservation and fisheries restoration programs.

But Poole said the Water Agency doesn't have the authority to impose anything, only seek voluntary water conservation.

"You're wanting me to be your police officer," he said.

He said he is only trying to meet the needs of the cities' own general plans, including that of Petaluma, which is slated to get up to 4,000 acre-feet annually in new water.

Torliatt said Petaluma has a chance to bring awareness of water issues to the other political bodies in Sonoma County by taking a stand.

"This is not a water-savings agreement, it is a water-using agreement," she said.

Petaluma shortchanged-

Poole admitted Petaluma has been shortchanged by past agreements. He said the city can raise its issues in the next version of the contract, Amendment 12, which requires an estimated two-year process that Poole said has already started.

"Treaties take time and concessions among all the parties," Poole said.

Petaluma council members also said they are being shortchanged because Petaluma's surplus water is being sold to Rohnert Park and Marin County. Poole said Petaluma will have a tough time trying to get back its surplus water until more water is available, because those communities are now dependent on it.

Also under the existing contract, every time Petaluma drills a well to help supplement its reliance on Russian River water, it automatically loses the same allotment of water from the Water Agency.

Could lose protections

Poole upped the ante, saying the side agreement to protect Petaluma's storage from shortfall is at risk if the city balks at Amendment 11 because Marin County would not be obligated to use its own reservoirs instead of Petaluma's during peak times, Poole said.

"You folks in the Petaluma aqueduct are in trouble," Poole said. "You have given away your surplus capacity to north Marin."

Also, the agency is earmarking up to $40 million for conservation and programs to recycle treated water on school athletic fields, city parks and golf courses. Petaluma could get about $8 million for those programs, but Poole said other cities might shortchange Petaluma if the city rejects Amendment 11.

The Cotati City Council on Wednesday delayed approval of a memorandum connected to the agreement, with Councilman Harold Berkemeier saying he wants Rohnert Park to agree to implement water meters at a faster pace.

Rohnert Park agreed last month to install water meters as part of the deal. But the city was given five years to install the meters and start billing based on use.

Poole said Forestville might also follow Petaluma's lead and reverse its approval of the pact if the agreement fails, putting at risk funds for a recycled water project.

The controversy and its threat to the fragile treaty could signal a rocky road ahead before water flows smoothly in Sonoma County.

"If everyone doesn't work together, then it could get divisive," Poole said.

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