Lawton: A water-stressed valley must curb development |

In my drought and fire-ridden home valley, 40 miles north of San Francisco, a debate has been simmering for decades over planned massive development on state-owned property.

The dispute centers on nearly 1,000 acres of rural and wilderness land in the Sonoma Valley. The prime wine country property was considered for development long before 2018, when the state transferred its last clients from the Sonoma Developmental Center, California’s oldest hospital for the “feeble-minded.”

What remains on the grounds are decaying historic buildings, an active fire department, a popular network of walking trails through oak and redwood forests, and the valley’s only two municipal drinking water reservoirs.

Now the state, in conjunction with Sonoma County planning staff, is proposing to turn the old center into a “vibrant, mixed-use community.” Its retail stores, offices, and some 900 new housing units would increase wineries, tourism, manufacturing, and small businesses in the valley.

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But in a time and place of growing aridity, the proposal reads like a chimera.

“Unfortunately, the state did not consider land and water constraints before developing its plan,” says historical ecologist Arthur Dawson, who chairs an advisory board for the North Sonoma Valley.

Water, in particular, is lacking. The valley’s 44,000-acre groundwater basin and recycled water supply only half of the community’s water. Piped supplies make up the other half, shipped from increasingly drought-stressed river basins farther north.

Lack of water availability, however, is not considered a decisive factor. Susan Gorin, one of the county supervisors, said the Center grounds “can meet the needs of our community: affordable housing, gainful employment, and certainly open space preservation,” while “making financial sense.” In other words, while generating revenue for the state.

It’s no secret that the Sonoma Valley and its 50,000 residents are short of water. As a member of research teams monitoring local surface and groundwater beginning in 2000, I have witnessed the decline of once healthy streams and aquifers up close. In summary: once abundant water wealth has been depleted by a population growing at 5% per year and an agricultural economy invested 70% in irrigated wine grapes.

Many proponents of the plan believe that new homes and businesses in the development can tap into the two reservoirs and the old center’s aging water system. Opponents see them as already necessary for emergency drinking water and firefighting.

The debate underlies Sonoma Valley’s status as a high-priority basin under California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. “The law requires that groundwater resources be managed to avoid undesirable outcomes,” says Sandi Potter, retired Sonoma County water resources planner. These results are already evident in the decline of groundwater levels in the valley, the drying up of streams and the intrusion of seawater into aquifers.

According to Potter, the law means that “development can no longer proceed unbridled without regard to the actual capacity of a watershed”. Sonoma Valley’s management plan under the law is rock solid, but it has yet to be tested on new developments.

During this time, the inhabitants of the valley visit the ancient lands of the Center every day for hiking, biking and horseback riding. Many helped “vision” the Centre’s repurposing before closure, attended two years of project meetings and submitted comments on its environmental impact statement.

The nonprofit Sonoma Land Trust, long involved in protecting the area’s wildlife habitat, said the plan’s lack of specificity could lead to a focus on market-priced single-family homes. This would not help achieve the state’s goals for affordable multi-unit housing.

Meanwhile, the valley’s workforce has been increasingly excluded from Sonoma’s real estate market. Median home prices are approaching $1 million and “many of the vacancies that exist are for second or vacation homes,” according to the county’s Economic Development Board.

In response, Dawson launched a petition to the Board of Supervisors proposing a project half as dense and less suited to the overwhelming influx of wealth to the Valley. He quickly collected 1,500 signatures: “Everyone says no.”

But no to development has rarely meant “no” when it comes to Cadillac California’s desert landscapes. In a valley once rich with swamps, streams and forests, a community now living on drained, fire-prone land must stop drawing water from rivers and watersheds miles away.

For now, however, all we can do now is keep pushing for development decisions that make sense.

Becca Lawton contributes to Writers on the Range,, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating lively conversation about the West. She is a retired river geologist and Grand Canyon River guide living in California.

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