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Friday, October 22, 2010

Urban Water Management Plans for Sonoma County's Future

Court Gives Direction 
on Urban Water Management Plans 
That Rely on Future Supplies

The Urban Water Management Planning Act requires urban water suppliers to prepare and update every five years an Urban Water Management Plan addressing water supply and demand over the following 20 years. The Act specifies a broad range of matters relating to water usage, supply reliability, programs for increasing supplies, demand management and shortage contingency planning that each plan must address. In Sonoma County Water Coalition v. Sonoma County Water Agency (October 8, 2010), the First District Court of Appeal provided clear guidance on the information an urban water management plan must contain and the standards for legal adequacy.

The Sonoma County Water Agency adopted a plan in 2005, which was challenged by organizations opposed to the agency’s program for increasing its supplies. The trial court found the plan legally deficient, ruling that it:
(1) failed to adequately consider how environmental concerns might hamper the agency’s efforts to expand its supplies and should have described alternatives for expanding supplies given the potential difficulties;
(2) did not adequately address the potential for future groundwater contamination; (3) lacked enough specific data about the effect of demand management measures for addressing future supply shortfalls; and
(4) should have been prepared in coordination with state and federal agencies.

The appellate court reversed, finding that the plan fully identified the assumptions underlying its projections, acknowledged the uncertainties involved, and relied on relevant facts and expert analysis. The opinion gives specific direction on several key elements of urban water management plans:

• Description of programs to increase supplies. The assumptions underlying plans for expanding water supplies should be described, and those assumptions must be grounded on supporting evidence. Certainty about future supplies is not required, since “long-term water planning involves expectations and not certainties.” Further, a plan need not include proposals for replacing anticipated future supplies that might not be fully realized with an alternative supply that would be “at least equally uncertain.”

• Description of water quality problems. Plans should include information about how water quality problems affect supply reliability and water management, but need not address hypothetical future threats to water quality. The requirement that plans be updated every five years is sufficient to ensure that risks to water supplies that do develop over time are addressed.

• Description of water conservation measures. A supplier that is a member of the California Urban Water Conservation Council may satisfy the requirement that plans estimate water savings attributable to conservation programs by attaching the activity reports it submits to the Council identifying water demand management measures. It need not quantify the expected reduction in water demand, or provide a separate description and evaluation of demand management activities.

• Compliance with statutory coordination requirement. The statute requires water suppliers to coordinate “to the extent practicable” with “water suppliers that share a common source” and “water management agencies” that are “in the area,” and provides that they may consult with other “relevant” agencies when preparing a plan. This language gives water suppliers discretion to determine what agencies to include in their planning. They are not required to circulate a draft plan for review and comment by federal or state agencies merely because those agencies have regulatory authority that could affect water supplies in some way.

This alert was authored by Geoffrey Robinson, Stephen Kostka and Marie Cooper, each of whom represented Sonoma County Water Agency on the appeal in this case.