An effort is underway to train residents living near the Rohnert Park casino to monitor groundwater levels of their wells in an attempt to keep tabs on the 64-acre project.
The casino and hotel, being built by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, is estimated to utilize more than 7,000 acre feet of water over the next 13 years, according to the project’s Environmental Impact Study. The water will come from two wells on the tribe’s property, along with 100 acre feet that will be purchased each year from Rohnert Park.
One acre foot contains approximately 326,000 gallons of water.
But the project could also affect the more than 200 private wells surrounding the site, prompting concerns about overdrawing the precious resource and causing the ground to potentially sink as aquifers dry up.
To address residents’ concerns, which have been many, Sonoma County Water Agency has asked Sotoyome Resource Conservation District to train residents living within a 2-mile radius of the project to measure their own water levels.
“We will be monitoring groundwater elevation levels in the first year to set up a baseline and continue one to years after casino opens,” said Kevin Cullinen, a project manager with Sotoyome, which was brought on by the county as a neutral third party. “After that a water consultant will analyze the data and determine if any compensation needs to occur.”
The tribe has said it will reimburse owners of wells that have become unusable within three years of the start of the project or who must spend more money to access water that is deeper in the ground as a result of depleted resources. It has also been monitoring 11 wells near the casino over the past six months.
Historically, the state's groundwater has not been monitored, although in 2009, the California legislature amended existing water code to require monitoring of seasonal and long-term trends in California’s groundwater basins. That has allowed groups like Sotoyome to collaborate with local agencies to keep track of groundwater elevation levels and train residents to become environmental watchdogs in their communities.
Rohnert Park, specifically, has relied heavily on groundwater over the years as it built new developments until it was stopped by a lawsuit filed by Penngrove rancher John King in 2002. The ensuing settlement forced the Sonoma County Water Agency to deliver Russian River water to Rohnert Park instead of relying on groundwater.
The river, surrounding creeks and streams are all part of the Laguna de Santa Rosa watershed, a biologically rich area that has been hurt by development. It's currently listed as "impaired" under the the federal Clean Water Act.
Over the past decade, the city has taken steps to reduce overall water consumption by implementing a water recycling system for local parks and fields, installing 10,000 water efficient toilets and offering rebates for water conservation, according to Darrin Jenkins, the director of development services for Rohnert Park.
The result has been a reduction of overall water usage by nearly a half, although about 20 percent of the city’s water still comes from local wells.
Opponents of the casino, such as the Stop Casino 101 Coalition, say that decades of groundwater extraction have already resulted in subsidence, a process in which a dried up aquifer causes the ground above it to sink, causing structural damages to homes and businesses above.
“The entire city of Rohnert Park is subsiding by half a foot a year and that includes land where the casino is being built,” said Marilee Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the anti-casino group. “Once an aquifer collapses, it’s gone and there is nothing that can be done to fix it.”
The Sotoyome Resource Conservation District is holding a community meeting to discuss how the training will be implemented on Thursday, October 25 at the Cotati Veterans’ Memorial Building, 8505 Park Ave. Cotati, starting 6pm. Because of limited space, only residents living closest to the casino are asked to attend. For more information about the meeting, contact the district at 707-569-1448.