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September 20, 2020

Guest view: District updates groundwater charge zones

500 wells in South County no longer subject to pumping charges

By John Varela

In Santa Clara County, the largest supply of water is hidden beneath our feet. 

Local groundwater basins can hold more water than all of Valley Water’s 10 reservoirs combined, and serve as our primary reserve in times of drought. Groundwater provides nearly all the water used by residents and businesses in South County. 

Because the amount of groundwater pumped out far exceeds what is naturally replenished by rainfall, Valley Water’s groundwater management activities are critical to maintaining healthy groundwater basins. 

One important method Valley Water uses to manage groundwater responsibly is to establish groundwater benefit zones. A groundwater benefit zone is a geographic area that benefits from Valley Water activities, such as replenishing groundwater with local and imported surface water. Other activities include monitoring and protecting groundwater from pollutants and constructing, operating and maintaining facilities that help sustain groundwater supplies. 

Groundwater pumping charges collected from well users in the groundwater benefit zones fund these activities. The board is moving forward with a process to ensure well users continue to be charged fairly for the water they pump out of the ground and the benefits they receive. 

Currently, there are two groundwater benefit zones, which have not been updated in some time. Valley Water recently conducted a scientific study to evaluate these zones. Our goal was to ensure the zones reflect as accurately as possible the areas benefiting from Valley Water activities. 

Because zone changes have the potential to impact many well users, Valley Water conducted extensive stakeholder engagement on the preliminary study recommendations. Based on the results of the study and input from stakeholders, Valley Water’s groundwater management team recommended changing the benefit zones. 

The board of directors agreed and directed our team to prepare the survey description to modify the two existing zones, and create two new zones in South County. The board will consider these changes in a public hearing later this year. 

If the recommended zone changes are adopted at the upcoming public hearing, about 800 wells in the county will be removed from the benefit zones, with about 500 of those wells located in South County. Those well users would no longer be subject to groundwater charges once the changes go into effect, likely in July. About 10 South County wells would be added to a zone, and Valley Water has reached out to those individual well users. 

The rates for the new and modified zones will be determined and set through Valley Water’s normal rate setting process. Groundwater rates for the new and modified zones are expected to take effect in July. 

It’s important to understand that your groundwater bill is based on how much groundwater you use, and the Valley Water activities that benefit your zone. We are committed to ensuring these zones continue to be fair. 

Valley Water’s total revenue will not change as a result of the proposed zone changes. Our rates are based on our costs, and the restructuring of the benefit zones divides those costs more equitably to well users benefiting from our activities. 

On average, Valley Water replenishes two-thirds of the groundwater pumped in South County. Without these services, our groundwater supply would not be sustainable. 

To learn more about the groundwater benefit study zone or to sign up for related notifications, visit valleywater.org/gwbenefits or contact project manager George Cook at (408) 630-2964. 

John Varela serves on the Board of Directors of Valley Water, the Santa Clara Valley water district. He represents the board district that includes South County.

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