by Daniel Mufson, Ph.D.

Overview: A Look Back: How Grand Jury Reporting Works
Every year since Statehood a civil Grand Jury (GJ) of citizens has been impaneled in each California county to study the operation of county government. The GJ reports are submitted to the relevant departments with recommendations that have to be responded to. It is an important and stimulating opportunity for these citizens to be able to take on such an in-depth investigation. Oftentimes their reports are dismissed by acts of benign neglect. The county says that the recommendations “require further analysis”, and promise “to research the situation”, and issue a “we’ll get back to you” statement. Often by then, the GJ’s term is up and a new GJ starts again.

In recent times several Napa County Grand Juries have studied water management and issued reports. The 1988-89 report is best summarized with this excerpt: “In the past several years the decline in water supplies and increased demand for water have increased the need for and importance of water resources management.” The 2009-10 GJ focused on a countywide water management system and recommended:“…the County, its municipalities, and the Napa Sanitation District (NSD) investigate the benefits to all the County’s residents of a countywide utility district to further optimize potable and recycled water resources.” We will take a deeper look at this report in a future article.

The 2014-15 Napa County Grand Jury issued the report “Management of Ground Water and Recycled Water: Is Napa County in Good Hands?” on March 31, 2015. The investigation was undertaken for the following reasons:

• Continued drought
• Napa County’s reliance on agriculture (viticulture) and its need for water
• Many newspaper articles expressing concern over increased development and citizen’s asking, “Where will the water come from?”
Per the report, the GJ said “Despite the current efforts by the County, this Grand Jury has some concerns that we believe need to be addressed:
• The differences between what the well drillers and the geologist stated and what the County believes is happening on the Valley floor with respect to groundwater levels and aquifer recharge.
• Most well owners have groundwater extraction limits that cannot be enforced by the County. With the exception of the MST, their groundwater usage is not monitored, even for large water users. Note: There are provisions in the new SGMA that would allow the local agency to impose fees to fund the costs of groundwater management, including the costs of monitoring users’ groundwater usage.
• The County does not have a groundwater management contingency plan in place should the drought continue.”

This Grand Jury stressed that the County would be better served by planning for a potential future disaster versus waiting for it to happen and then scrambling to act quickly in the midst of a crisis. We believe that citizens should expect their government officials to be prepared for all potential outcomes and have procedures or policies in place that they may rely upon when needed.

(For our recommendations on contingency planning, please see: EON, June 28, 2020, Taking the LAFCO Report A Step Further: Anticipating System Failures and Exploring Effective Scenario Planning, by Roland Dumas, Ph.D.)

The 2015 Grand Jury Recommendations on Ground Water:
1. By December 31, 2015, the Napa County Public Works Department to develop a contingency plan, approved by the Board of Supervisors, that lays out the major steps to be taken in the event of severe drought conditions.
2. By June 30, 2016, the Napa County Public Works Department to require major groundwater users to meter and report their water usage on a quarterly basis to ensure all well owners are following prescribed usage rates.
3. By June 30, 2016, the Napa County Public Works Department to adopt policies to encourage all other groundwater users to meter and monitor their well water usage.

The Responses from the Board of Supervisors
The Board of Supervisors responded that they would evaluate these recommendations, in the context of the Alternate Groundwater Sustainability Plan in their correspondence with the Superior Court Judge Stone on August 11, 2015, as stated below:
BOS response to 1: “The recommendation will be implemented in the context of the Alternative Groundwater Sustainability Plan, due to the State of California between June 30, 2016, and January 1, 2017.”
BOS response to both 2 and 3: “The recommendation requires further analysis. This recommendation will be considered in the context of the Alternative Groundwater Sustainability Plan, due to the State between June 30, 2016, and January 1, 2017. The development of the plan will include significant outreach to and input from the public. The Board of Supervisors will consider and determine the necessary amount of metering and reporting in the context of this public discussion.

And What Were the Actions Taken by the Supervisors?
The Supervisors did not develop a contingency plan regarding groundwater allocation in the face of a prolonged water emergency affecting this subbasin by 2017. In late 2019 water managers did establish a Drought Contingency Task Force with their report due in 2022.

The Supervisors promised the Grand Jury and the Superior Court that significant outreach to and input from the public on Grand Jury Recommendations 2 and 3 regarding water metering and monitoring. There has not been significant outreach to the public on this topic or the Basin Analysis Report. As of this date, there are no plans to meter and monitor GW usage.

Our Thoughts
Napa Vision 2050 applauds the GJ for their work and supports their recommendations regarding the need for contingency planning and metering and monitoring for all water users in the county and repeats their message:
“This Grand Jury would stress that there are some troubling issues and that the County would be better served planning for a potential future disaster vs. waiting for it to happen and then trying to put a plan together quickly. Citizens should expect their governmental officials to be prepared for all potential outcomes and have procedures or policies in place that they may rely on when needed.”

It is reasonable to allow ourselves to be governed in the expectation that our leaders will do the right thing. However, by not planning for a water shortage our local government increases our vulnerability. We need and must demand a plan for water security.

Water Realities Vs Contrary Actions
We currently observe the planning departments and commissions of both the county and the municipalities actively considering and approving large new projects such as wineries, hotels, and spas, all that will require ever greater water resources. It is critical that these entities consider the reality of water scarcity in the decision-making process, and yet they do not.

We find that the county and the municipalities encouraging new developments without regard for their water budget, is a disappointment, and contrary to our expectations and trust.

In Conclusion
Given the State of California’s mandate for the Napa County Groundwater Sustainability Agency (which consists of the self-appointed Napa County Board of Supervisors) to develop a plan for the sustainable operation of the groundwater subbasin it seems that the only way to fairly achieve that goal is by metering, monitoring and allocating fair-share water supply to the Commons to ensure our equal rights to water. In addition, development decisions must include a careful examination of water usage needs and the available remaining resources.