A water-stressed valley needs to curb development  

By Rebecca Lawton

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

The conflict is focused on nearly 1,000 acres of rural and wildland in Sonoma Valley. The prime wine-country property has been eyed for development since long before 2018, when the state transitioned its last clients from the Sonoma Developmental Center, California’s oldest hospital for the “feeble-minded.”    

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

Now the state, working with Sonoma County’s planning staff, proposes to transform the former Center into a “vibrant, mixed-use community.” Its retail shops, offices, and some 900 new housing units would augment the valley’s wineries, tourism, manufacturing, and small businesses.

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

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

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

Lack of water availability, though, isn’t considered a deal-breaker. Susan Gorin, one of the county’s supervisors, has said that the Center grounds “can meet the needs for our community: affordable housing, living-wage jobs and certainly the preservation of open space,” while also “making sense financially.” In other words, while generating state revenue.   

It’s no secret that Sonoma Valley and its 50,000 residents are water insecure. As part of research teams monitoring local surface and groundwater beginning in 2000, I witnessed the decline of once-healthy streams and aquifers up close. The bottom line: Once-abundant water wealth has been depleted by a population growing at 5 percent annually and an agricultural economy invested 70 percent in irrigated wine grapes.   

Many plan proponents believe that the development’s new homes and businesses can draw on the old Center’s two reservoirs and aging water system. Opponents see those as already necessary for emergency drinking water and firefighting.   

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

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

Meanwhile, valley residents visit the old Center lands every day to hike, cycle, and ride horseback. Many helped “vision” the Center’s repurposing before the closure, attended two years of project meetings and submitted comments on its Environmental Impact Study.   

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

Meanwhile, the valley’s workforce has been increasingly shut out of Sonoma’s real-estate market. Median home prices are approaching a million dollars and “many of the vacancies that exist are devoted to second or vacation homes,” according to the county’s Economic Development Board.   

In response, Dawson started a petition to the Board of Supervisors proposing a project that would be half as dense and less tailored to the valley’s overwhelming influx of wealth. He gathered 1,500 signatures quickly: “Everyone is saying no.”   

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

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

Becca Lawton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She is a retired fluvial geologist and Grand Canyon River guide living in California. beccalawton.com.

This column was published in the following newspapers:

05/23/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
05/23/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
05/24/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
05/24/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
05/24/2022 Sublette Examiner Pinedale WY
05/24/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
05/24/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
05/25/2022 Alamogordo Daily News Alamogordo NM
05/25/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
05/25/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
05/25/2022 Ruidoso Daily News Ruidoso New Mexico
05/25/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
05/25/2022 Whitehall Ledger Whitehall MT
05/27/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
05/28/2022 Casper Star Tribune Casper WY
05/26/2022 Montrose Daily Press Montrose CO
05/27/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
05/29/2022 Las Vegas Sun Las Vegas NV
06/02/2022 Camus-Washougal Post Record Camus WA
06/03/2022 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
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Buzz Burrell
2 years ago

The writer is certainly well-intentioned, but the points she made are simplistic, pedantic, and outdated.

“Water, especially, is in short supply.” Of course it is. This is true almost everywhere in the west (yet less so in NoCal). So let’s hear the many solutions other communities are using to deal with that – people still need a place to live.

“Median home prices are approaching a million dollars…” Also obvious and true almost everywhere. And the documented cause of the housing crisis is restrictions on development, which is what the author wants to continue doing. The law of supply and demand is inviolate.

California has recognized the enormity and negative impacts of the housing crisis and has passed progressive resolutions, that among other things (such as basically outlawing traditional single-family zoning), essentially mandate that every municipality simply must build more houses. So Sonoma County needs to do that.

Naturally, there is massive push-back from landowning neighbors, who usually cite environmental reasons rather than their own desire to keep everything the same as when they arrived. Studies have continually shown that restricting development has no positive environmental benefits; it only guarantees landowners will become very wealthy.

This is a sea change in progressive policy. “Development” used to be a dirty word – which is very odd since every molecule of our physical existence was made possible by a “developer” – but one can only hate on developers when all the things that make one’s life possible take place out of sight somewhere else – Not In My BackYard. Progressive policy makers all over the world have now realized that demonizing development is terrible for environmental and social justice reasons.

The conversation now is how to quickly construct energy and water efficient, economical, and dense housing. YIMBY – “Yes In My BackYard” is the new motto of progressives.

I suggest HCN and it’s writers bid adieu to the 1990’s, and update it’s progressive voice for the 2020’s. The times, they already have changed.

2 years ago
Reply to  Buzz Burrell


Writers on the Range is an independent nonprofit. The views expressed are not endorsed by High Country News. HCN has no input on columns published by Writers on the Range.

Further, the points made in the column are entirely within the framework of rejecting what for years have been racist policies that reward the rich and exclude the poor, largely people of color, from participating in the housing market. Other factors, such as redlining also contributed. Suburbs, including those in California and Sonoma County, have numerous plots of land for infill development. Yet California, more or less a large suburb (excluding extremely small urban areas) from Los Angeles to San Francisco and numerous towns in between have single-family dwellings.

The crisis is explained by a lack of density. Hardly pedantic or outdated, the author writes about what not to do. Newsom’s banning of single-family zoning is progressive in thought but lacking in action.

Here’s the rest of the story.

The postwar period of American history is characterized by housing built and subsidized by President Eisenhower’s highways. He said troop movements would be facilitated by interstates but he meant rich white people.

City planners like New York’s Robert Moses, a racist, was the architect of what we now think of as the American city. Moses preceded Eisenhower and inspired him. Moses, the power broker of New York City, built grade-separated highways (overpasses that allow a continuous flow of cars) so richer people could live outside the city center. This destroyed the urban landscape. Just because it was copied the country and world over doesn’t mean it’s not an inherently broken system.

Don’t forget the auto industry had a hand in this when General Motors bought and destroyed over 100 light rail lines in Los Angeles so people would need to buy their cars. This disadvantaged the poor. These policies persist and are enabled by the developers that you defend.

Density, which almost every municipality rejects is the only answer. Costs are lower when you allow multi-family dwellings in towns and cities. Yet it is wealthier homeowners that reject these measures out of hand. How do you force those homeowners to build within their neighborhoods? You don’t. A law doesn’t change that. Surrounding those zoning laws are numerous bulwarks that must be torn down for true benefits. When you build within existing towns you don’t have to build more water lines, sewers, new curbs and gutters, and power lines and roads. If you support infill why do you push back against someone fighting more exurban wreckless development?

Moreover, utilizing existing vehicle right-of-ways for dedicated high-speed bus lines, not light rail, is the only way to move people cost-effectively. This must be combined with road charges to get people out of their cars.

Finally, a simple answer is to allow two dwellings without a new water tap fee and no right of rejection by neighbors (the current system) is the first step. Do away with Homeowner’s associations and make financing and municipal land available. Attack all facets of the problem.

Destroying another 1000 acres won’t help solve the crisis. It’s not even a first step. It’s merely another step in the wrong direction.

David Marston, Writers on the Range.

Rebecca Lawton
2 years ago
Reply to  David

Meant to post reply to Buzz. And I agree with you David that “Destroying another 1000 acres won’t help solve the crisis. It’s not even a first step. It’s merely another step in the wrong direction.” Well said.

Last edited 2 years ago by Rebecca Lawton
Rebecca Lawton
2 years ago
Reply to  Buzz Burrell

Thank you, Buzz. I don’t disagree with your view that “The conversation now is how to quickly construct energy and water efficient, economical, and dense housing.” Unfortunately that is not what this development promises, as a careful re-read of my opinion will confirm. If these points are so obvious to all, I question why water has not been a red-flag point of discussion in the planning documents and meetings to date. My close experience working on the property and in the valley suggests that it is issue number one for the very real water security of the community. Apologies if this reads like entitlement. Becca Lawton

Parents - WRITER |
2 years ago

[…] ESSAYS: Read my latest contribution to Writers on the Range. […]

Gigi Matlack
2 years ago

Informative and timely article. Sonoma County is my favorite place in the nation. Unfortunately, I am a climate refugee living elsewhere in the West, although I recognize that no place is safe from disasters exacerbated by climate change. Thinking about California’s plight makes me sad and angry that more is not being done to safeguard water, restore urban areas, and protect the planet.

Zero - WRITER |
2 years ago

[…] Read my latest contribution to Writers on the Range: development and water on a mountainside in Sonoma […]

Lisa Micheli
2 years ago

Terrific summary of a complex set of intersected issues!

1 year ago

Lots of good information in the article and the comments. One thing I missed, however, is the root cause of the problem of too much development (along with climate change, pollution and trash everywhere, resource depletion, overcrowded national parks, wars, refugee crises, etc., etc… Human Overpopulation. I know, it’s a taboo subject, but how long can the Earth be expected to tolerate unlimited growth without fighting back with a vengeance? Note: it’s already happening, and accelerating fast. If we don’t at least start to discuss this existential threat to our children’s survival … they won’t survive.

10 months ago

[…] Developmental Center (SDC) revitalization project in Glen Ellen, California. I wrote about SDC in a May 2022 op-ed for Writers on the Range, “A Water-Stressed Valley Needs to Curb […]

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