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Sonoma Revisioning

Author: Stephanie Derammelaere
December, 2017 Issue

 Long time smart growth advocate Ed McMahon addresses the question of how best to channel and balance urban growth. He argues that one of the key, but most often forgotten, elements of economic development is community distinctiveness, or its sense of place. In other words, the image of a community is fundamentally important to its economic well being since every day, people make decisions on where to live, invest, visit or retire based on what a place looks and feels like.  

Luckily, Sonoma County is well ingrained in its sense of place, even in the wake of the devastating wildfires that hit the county in mid-October. While there will undoubtedly be a temporary dip in tourism post fires, the Sonoma lifestyle will continue to contribute to our growing tourism industry, as well as our growing population. From rugged coastline on the west, to rolling hills and sprawling vineyards to the east, Sonoma County has a plethora of attributes that make people want to visit and live here. Many are attracted to the area for its variety of outdoor activities, thriving tourism industry, and wine and culinary scene. However, the county is not without its problems. The high cost of housing coupled with an extremely low vacancy rate, exasperated now to an epic degree after the fires, congested highways and byways and record low unemployment all contribute to frustration, leaving many no choice but to relocate and seek a sense of place elsewhere.

In a rapidly changing world, government leaders have to look at short-term solutions to some of our most pressing problems, as well as envision what our county will look like decades from now. Decisions made now will have lasting effects on future generations of workers and residents of the county, just as decisions made decades ago are affecting us today.

Five of the most pressing challenges facing the county today include the changing demographics of residents, the labor shortage, affordability and lack of housing, construction and transportation. While seemingly unrelated, all five issues are connected like cogs on a wheel, with one affecting the other. Individuals working in the county may not find (or be able to afford) housing, forcing them to commute from outside the county, adding to congestion on the freeway. The shortage of labor delays construction on housing, creating a downward spiral of young individuals who cannot afford to live here and leave the county. The result is a change in the demographic of the county and a labor shortage since there are not enough younger workers to replace retirees. The cycle continues—potentially a downward spiral—if interventions are not initiated. Luckily, county and city government officials are working hard to overcome, or at least mitigate, these top priority problems.

 The Changing Face of Sonoma County

As of 2016, the population in Sonoma County reached 503,284, a 4 percent increase since 2010, and is projected to increase to 522,641 by the year 2021. According to a 2017 economic report produced by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board, the demographics of the county are evolving, with an increasingly aging population and the Latino population continuing to grow as the largest minority group.

The percentage of the population under 25 is projected to decline from approximately 30 percent in 2016 to 28 percent in 2021, along with a significant 23 percent increase in the 65 and over age bracket. There are a number of concerns the county faces with this aging population—what some call the “Silver Tsunami.” First, there will be an increased demand for health services, both in terms of quantity as well as for acute and emergency services.

“We do see seniors needing increased access to medical services, which is especially challenging out in the countryside,” says County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins. “When you don’t have a lot of families moving into the area, we experience a loss of students at our local schools. A lot of schools in west county have fewer students than ever before.  As a result, there’s less demand for child rearing support systems such as affordable child care, after-care, club programs and activities for kids to do in rural Sonoma County.”

“When you see those kinds of services start to erode you’re almost in this downward spiral where people are even less likely to move into the area because they don’t see it as a family-friendly environment”, she continues. “That’s an important segment of society. The young families are our future of Sonoma County and it’s also an important piece of our workforce because they’re people at the beginning or middle of their careers.”

As Baby Boomers retire, there will be an aging out of the workforce and not enough young workers to replace them. In addition, when those older, skilled workers leave the workforce, there may not be enough senior employees to train junior staff.

Hopkins believes that creating more affordable housing to encourage young families,  and therefore workers, to stay in the county will be pivotal in maintaining a healthy, growing workforce and a sense of community for those who live here. In addition, focusing on economic development to encourage companies and industries to invest here will create higher paying jobs, which may prevent younger workers from leaving the county.

“It’s an important time to focus on economic development,” says Hopkins. “I don’t think a lot of people think about economic development when the economy is good. But we need to continue to actively recruit companies that share our Sonoma County values of sustainability and social justice. A lot of folks are focused on product creation utilizing our local food, capitalizing on our local agriculture. We can’t take our foot off the gas pedal in recruiting new companies to come to Sonoma County and also facilitating small business start ups.”

One example of an area of growth is the cannabis industry, as it’s evolving into the legalized world. This burgeoning industry can have major future impact in creating well paying jobs, facilitating the creation of affordable housing, and subsequently keeping more workers living within the county, lessening the need for individuals to commute from a farther distance.

“More of them [companies in the cannabis industry] will be required to come into the permitted, regulated world,” says County Supervisor Susan Gorin of district one. “In return for that they’re going to not only have to pay their employees a living wage (many of them do, they pay their employees quite well), they’re going to have to be concerned about where their employees are living and how they can afford to live in Sonoma County. Just as agriculture is part of the solution in providing farm worker housing, the cannabis industry will and already is becoming part of the solution in contributing to affordable housing for their employees and development in communities. This industry should not be only considered a cultivating industry. We have manufacturing and research opportunities popping up everywhere in Sonoma County.”

The face of Sonoma County is also evolving culturally. Currently, the Caucasian population makes up the majority of the population, at 63.3 percent. The Latino population covers the largest minority group at 26.9 percent. Every other minority group represents less than five percent of the population. However, over time the proportion of the population that is Caucasian has decreased, while the proportion of the population that is Latino has increased. For example, from 2010 to 2016 the Latino population grew by 12.6 percent, while the Caucasian population decreased by just under 0.5 percent. Some of this also contributes to the growing economic inequality we are seeing in the county, with a larger proportion of the Latino population working in lower paid jobs.

“We are dealing with the greatest economic inequality that we’ve seen in many generations,” says County Supervisor James Gore. “We have almost full employment in Sonoma County, [but] we still have a lot of part-time jobs and poorly paid positions, while we have a lot of people from outside of the county purchasing second homes. This inequity is creating a substantial divide. It’s an economic stratification that is also a demographic stratification in our community.”

The demographic shift is expected to continue into the future, with estimates indicating that the county will be 50 percent of Latino descent by the year 2050. One can already see the tide turning when looking at schools. While the general population is about 60 to 40 percent, Caucasian to minority groups, in many schools these statistics are reversed.

“I see that as a wave to be embraced rather than one to fear,” says Gore. “I see Latino family members starting businesses throughout our county. We at the Economic Development Board have a full time staff working on empowering Latino business owners. These entrepreneurs are purchasing and starting companies. What we’re finding is that the 2nd or 3rd generation of the Latino families that settled here in the 40s through the 70s and the 80s are now making their claim to being a part of the future of Sonoma County. I think that’s an excellent thing.”

Gore cautions that if the separation of communities, with various racial “bubbles,” continues throughout the county, it may create angst and division. Walls need to be broken down and communities need to become more integrated to add inclusion and diversity.

The Labor Shortage

Unemployment rates in the county are at a record low of 4 percent, a 0.5 percent decrease from 2014, while job growth is increasing, with the total number of jobs in the county having reached 250,200, a 2.2 percent increase from 2014. While this is seemingly a positive statistic, it nevertheless indicates a lack of fluidity in the job market, hindering economic growth and risking an increase in inflation.

“Sonoma County is at an all time high for the number of jobs in the county,” says Gore. “What we have at the same time is an unemployment rate that’s less than 5 percent. That’s one of the lowest in the state. By many indicators you could look at that and say that’s an extremely successful economy, while other counties are still trying to pull out of a recession. But that low level of unemployment is actually an indicator that cuts both ways. It shows that we have a lot of employment here in Sonoma County but on the converse we do not have a lot of flexible labor moving around to different areas. Some of the main drivers of that is cost of living. The labor market is completely linked to the availability of housing here in Sonoma County.”

Some industries, such as agriculture and construction, have been hit harder. Construction, for example, has seen both a decrease in workers since the downturn in the economy and subsequent decline in building projects pushed many construction and related businesses out of the marketplace, as well as an aging out of the workforce over the last several decades. It’s estimated that the average age of a journeyman carpenter is in their fifties today, versus in their thirties as they were several decades ago. With the significant emphasis on young people to enter into the technology fields, less education and interest has been committed to the trades, causing fewer newcomers to move into these jobs, to the detriment of the industry as a whole.

The county is working on several initiatives to help the labor shortage—some short term and some long term. One example is a new pilot program recently approved by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and the Sonoma County Water Agency Board of Directors to expose young adults to opportunities in the water industry. The new Career Pathways Program is an extension of the Sonoma County Youth Ecology Corps (SCYEC), which employs 16-to-24-year-olds in the summer to work on ecosystem restoration and conservation-related projects. Ironically, the program was created in 2009 when the county was in the midst of the recession, and almost 25 percent of teens and young adults were unemployed. Today, the SCYEC is competing with the private sector for a limited number of young people to fill jobs.

The Career Pathways Program provides out-of-school young adults the opportunity to work for six months performing stream maintenance work for the Water Agency, as well as an additional six month internship in one of several fields, including water mechanics, fleet mechanics, sanitation systems and fisheries. This gives young workers the opportunity for longer-term jobs, career exposure, training, and experience in a field that faces future labor shortages.

“As the silver tsunami hits, the county and many other local employers will face a shortage of trained, skilled tradespeople,” says Gorin. “The Career Pathways Program exposes young adults to desirable jobs that pay well, and gets them on a track that could help them meet the county’s future workforce needs. It’s a win-win.”

Other ways that private industry is hoping to ease the labor shortage is by working together to support math and sciences in our schools and provide internships to not only prepare children for the jobs of the future but also for the employers to ensure a future educated workforce.

The county has funded several programs, including the 10,000 Degrees Program, providing scholarships to those who would normally not be able to afford college, STEM programs, particularly targeting more women to get into technical careers, and Career Technical Education at several high schools, to promote careers in technology.

“Our labor shortage is not going to be eased quickly and we’re going to have to look for multiple strategies to be creative in finding the employees necessary that we took for granted a decade ago,” says Gorin.


Housing for all

A shortage of labor in the construction industry effects yet another cog in the wheel, namely the lack of housing in Sonoma County. Conversely, lack of affordable housing is driving young workers out the county, negatively affecting the labor shortage. Vacancy rates are still extremely low— before the October wildfires they were 1 percent for homeowners and 1.8 percent for the rental market, and are even worse today. According to the online real estate site Zillow, the median rent in Sonoma County rose 36 percent to $3,224 in a weeklong period after the fires, compared to September. Even before the fires, the median house price was $527,000, up 9.5 percent from June 2015, and with the median household income in the county at $66,674, affordable housing is a pressing issue for our communities. Before October, median rents had increased more than 16 percent since 2000, while median renter household incomes had decreased 6 percent. This leaves the county’s lowest-income renters spending 68 percent of their income on rent, leaving little left for food, transportation, health expenses and other needs. Most county supervisors counted this issue as one of the most urgent and the root cause of other challenges the county is facing.  The county estimated that, even before the fires, 17,144 affordable homes for low-income individuals and families were still needed. That number, in addition to the approximate 6,000 homes that burned in the wildfires in the county, brings housing to crisis levels.


“When people can’t afford to live here they go to Solano County, Napa County, or Lake County, and commute long distances,” says County Supervisor Shirlee Zane. “That means they can’t volunteer in their community, they can’t go to their kid’s little league team and they can’t volunteer in their kid’s classroom. They can’t participate in those activities that enrich their families and our community if they sit in their cars three to four hours a day. Housing is essential to healthcare. When people have secure housing, they don’t have the type of stress in their life. There are a lot of people living on edge right now because they don’t know if they can keep their housing. I don’t think we can grow economically if we don’t acknowledge that this is a real crisis that we need to get out of.”

Attempting to solve this problem will take time and commitment, but the county is working hard on doing just that. Part of the solution will be changing the mindset of the population who vehemently oppose any more building in or near their communities, what county officials call  “NIMBYs,” or “Not in My Backyard.”

“The NIMBYs in California have had a significant impact in why we’re in this housing crisis right now,” says Zane. “It effectively drives up the cost for the developers. We don’t have redevelopment dollars anymore so they’re relying on the tax credit program. But time is money when you build and if you delay a project because of lawsuits and because of the NIMBYism effect it has on politicians, what effectively happens is that the developer has less and less money then to build affordable units. Those who were no-growth people in elected office 20 years ago and said yes to NIMBY’s voted along with them and basically delayed housing projects. That’s the reason partly why we’re in the fix that we’re in.”

In the spring of 2017 the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved multiple actions to specifically increase the supply of affordable housing in Sonoma County. These included policy changes to free up local housing development funds for use in all areas of Sonoma County, as well as building 12 or more “tiny houses” on County-owned land located on Russell Avenue in Santa Rosa. The tiny house pilot project is one of the first in the nation to use government-owned land to create tiny houses.  The land will be leased to Community Housing Sonoma County, a California nonprofit public benefit corporation, and will include on-site management.

The total development cost for Community Housing Sonoma County’s proposal is $1.03 million. The project will use federal Veterans Administration Supportive Housing funding for monthly rental subsidies for residents through the Santa Rosa Housing Authority.

County and city officials are also working together in the aftermath of the fires to possibly view the crisis as an opportunity to get more affordable housing built. This may entail having certain areas rezoned from commercial to housing space.

“This crisis changes everything,” says Supervisor Zane. “It gives us some opportunity to build better and build faster in ways that we didn’t have before. We should take those opportunities. We need to help people rebuild their homes but we also need to look at some new opportunities such as taking previous commercial space like the old Kmart and seeing if we can build some density housing there which is close to the SMART track and 101. We need to put every single option on the table.”

The Board of Supervisors also approved a policy change to allow the use of the county’s housing trust fund in both unincorporated and incorporated cities. Until this change, those funds were limited to unincorporated county areas. The county fund for housing receives “in-lieu” fees from developers as part of the inclusionary housing ordinance, and contributions from the county’s general fund. Since its inception, the county fund for housing has invested over $24 million and spurred the production of more than 550 affordable homes throughout the county.

“The other exciting thing is that in county government we’ve said, ‘we own a lot of real estate and some of it is pretty well located for housing development,” says Margaret Van Vliet, executive director of the Sonoma County Community Development Commission. “We have strategically focused on where the low hanging fruit is—where can we most likely move forward by disposing of property that’s owned publically and getting it into the hands of private developers so that housing can get built.”

Most recently the Board of Supervisors approved a development and disposition agreement with a private developer for an 80-acre property on Chanate Road that had been a topic of some controversy, since many neighbors were opposed to the project. However, by being strategic and using the county’s land assets wisely, they feel they can make a real dent in the housing crisis.

“Another property that is in CDC’sportfolio is one my agency bought from the Sonoma County Water Agency,” says Van Vliet. “It was the location of their former administrative headquarters and is about seven acres. It’s also in a residential neighborhood [on West College Avenue].  We’ve been working with Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins on engaging with the community to solicit a developer to bring us proposals to build anywhere from 170 to 200 units. It doesn’t all have to be affordable but we want as much affordable rental housing as possible. And given the impact of the fires on our housing market, we want it as quickly as possible.”


Like a double edged sword, the construction industry is experiencing a shortage of skilled labor to build more housing, which is necessary to recruit more workers into the area so they can live where they work. While the county has adopted an increasing number of regulations and ordinances over the years for noble reasons, they’ve worked to stunt progress on more developments being built. Moving forward, a key factor to continuing progress on creating more housing, requires cities and counties to work together to support and approve projects.

“We are really cognizant of trying to work with the nine incorporated cities in Sonoma County,” says Van Vliet. “Especially in the wake of the fires, the elected officials are really taking this quite seriously and saying it’s a shared problem we have to work together on. We’ve heard loud and clear from the business community that they need this from us, and we’re taking that charge more seriously now than we ever have.”

To encourage more construction for housing, the county can make permitting less cost prohibitive and find other financial incentives. For example, the county operates density bonus programs to assist private developers in building rental and for-sale housing that is affordable to low and moderate income households. Through these programs, developers are allowed to build at densities up to 100 percent greater than those for which the land is zoned, in exchange for guarantees that the housing will be rented or sold to eligible households at affordable prices. In addition, a 100 percent density bonus is available for multi-family rental housing when at least 40 percent of units are affordable.

“One of the strategies for this coming year is to shift the collection of fees from building issuance to occupancy,” says Tennis Wick, director for Permit Sonoma. “To people not familiar with construction, that might sound somewhat abstract and minimal but it’s not. Because those fees paid at issuance—which, depending on the size of the project can be in the thousands to hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars—those fees come out of pocket. However, if we shift those to occupancy, when the impact really occurs—impact on housing, roads and parks—those can be financed into the construction lending and permanent financing for the project. It’s a great savings to the person building the homes, which for some projects is the difference between doing the project and not doing the project.”

County supervisors are even discussing possibly moving from deferring fees to waiving them altogether, at least temporarily to accelerate the rebuilding of homes lost to the fires. This could also mean that getting building permits would be greatly expedited.

“My vision is that somebody could come in with their plan, the county does a plan check that day, they get signed off by the architect, they bring them back the next day, and they have a permit in their hands,” says Zane. “It would be a radical new way of doing business—that’s what we’re talking about. In the past it might take a year sometimes or more, and I would like to see us be able to get a permit in somebody’s hands within 2 days.”

Transportation for the future

Meeting the transportation needs of our rising population is, and will continue to be, on the forefront of the county’s agenda. Creating more housing on one hand diminishes the number of people commuting from outside the county into work, but it also increases local transportation needs. The more infrastructure the county can offer in terms of public transportation, the more cars will stay off the roads, minimizing congestion for everyone.

“There are two aspects to our transportation challenges,” says Suzanne Smith, executive director of the Sonoma County Transportation Authority. “We have to deal with the aging pains of the transportation infrastructure. We have a lot to do in terms of maintaining the existing infrastructure that we have, like maintaining local roads, making sure state highways are well maintained, and making sure our transit fleet is updated and modernized on a regular basis. Then there are the growing pains of transportation. Because of the robust economy and because of our commute patterns, we have to address traffic congestion and provide alternatives.”

Priority projects for the Sonoma County Transportation Authority include finishing the Highway 101 widening project through Petaluma and Marin, and getting the SMART train further north to Windsor, Healdsburg and Cloverdale. The SMART train should play a key role in relieving congestion and helping residents achieve a faster and more enjoyable commute. The push now is to fit other public transportation options and other modes of transport along the SMART train corridor, building a unified and integrated transportation system.

Regardless of how many public transportation options exist, cars on the road will remain an invariable fact of life, and the public has been complaining for years about the poor quality of Sonoma County roads. With 1,383 miles of road in the county in addition to a whopping 328 bridges—more roads and bridges than any county in the Bay Area—repairing and maintaining our streets is not an easy feat. The county is committed to doing just that, and has already spent $65 million on completing almost 300 miles of pavement preservation and rehabilitation projects since 2012. There are also 14 bridge projects currently in progress.  Another $28 million was recently approved for use over the next two years, with funding coming primarily from annual general fund contributions to roads, the new state gas tax funding and the Measure L Transit Occupancy Tax.

“The Board has had a huge focus on [the condition of our pavement] for the last five years now,” says Susan Klassen, director of Sonoma County’s Transportation and Public Works Department. “They’ve been putting more general fund money into repairing and replacing pavement and preserving pavement than any other county in the state of California in terms of general fund contributions.”

Another area of our transportation system that Transportation and Public Works is focusing on is the expansion of the Charles M. Schulz—Sonoma County Airport, another growing element in our broadening transportation system. The airport now offers service through four different airlines and having a SMART stop near the airport will streamline both ground and air transit for Sonoma County residents.

“We’ve gained a lot of service over the last couple years [at the airport],” says Klassen. “We’re having some growing pains but we’re starting construction of a new long term lot because our long term lot is always full now. And we are, probably over the next couple years, breaking ground on a major expansion of the terminal.”

Like every metropolitan area, Sonoma County has these, as well as other issues to consider and attempt to solve, such as homelessness, other infrastructure building and improvements, water and environmental concerns and education. However, what should appease residents is that their issues are understood and taken seriously, and that our county’s passionate board of supervisors are busy at work, making many efforts to relieve and solve our most pressing issues. No solution will happen overnight, and the grandest plan still needs financial funding and voter support, but strategies are being put in place today that Sonoma County residents will hopefully see the fruits of in decades to come and will preserve our county’s sense of place for not only us but also our future generations.


Wine Growers are Hit Hard by the Labor Shortage

There are approximately 1,800 grape growers in Sonoma County, covering about 60,000 acres, or 6 percent of the land in the county. Eighty percent of vineyards are less than 100 acres, and forty percent are less than 20 acres. These small growers are especially feeling the squeeze in our labor shortage, when competing with the larger growers for workers.

The labor shortage in the wine growing industry has progressed over several years, spiking to critical proportions in the last two years. The aging of the current workforce along with less young people coming from Mexico amid immigration fears and deficient policy reform, has not only affected grape growers, but also landscapers, construction companies and now the new cannabis industry as well. It has become more difficult for workers to obtain work visas and work here temporarily, which is what most wine growers need—temporary, seasonal help, primarily during harvest.

“There are two potential myths of our workforce here,” says Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW), established in 2006 as a marketing and educational organization dedicated to the promotion and preservation of Sonoma County as one of the world’s premier grape growing regions. “One is that folks working in agriculture are taking away jobs from other U.S. citizens who would want that. In fact, before a grape grower or farmer can apply for a program called the H2A program, a program to legally get a work visa to bring workers here from another country, primarily Mexico in our case, you have to prove that there is a need that can’t be filled in the U.S. You do that by posting the job description in four different states. I have not heard of anyone ever applying for those jobs.”

Another common myth is that everyone who comes here wants to be a citizen or is looking for a path to citizenship. The reality is that many workers choose to come here for only a couple months. They can earn more money in a day here than an entire week in Mexico, but when the work ends they want to go back to their hometowns and to their families.

To complicate matters, wine grape growing requires a lot of manual labor, particularly those vineyards that were planted before mechanism was even a possibility, or those on hillsides. The work actually requires highly skilled labor that involves removing the right leaves to allow the right amount of sunshine, pruning grapes that will not ripen, and handling the delicate fruit in a precise way—all tasks that a machine simply cannot perform.

To deal with the labor shortage crisis, grape growers have had to get creative and employ several solutions to keep their businesses running—businesses that the whole county heavily depends upon in terms of its significant economic impact. Many have increased wages and/or hired more full-time employees year round to reduce the need for seasonal employees and enlarge their pool of loyal employees they can depend on when more work is needed. After the harvest season, employees can perform other tasks related to farming. On average, growers already pay 60 percent above minimum wage, and employ more than 7,800 workers, 5,186 of which are full-time. 

Grape growers have also collaborated and partnered more amongst each other, borrowing equipment from each other and being flexible with harvesting logistics to ensure everyone in the industry can get what they need to produce their wine.

There has also been an increased interest in the H2A visa program. The program, however, stipulates that the workers need to have housing available, and that housing needs to be provided in advance. This poses a hurdle for employers who are already dealing with affordable housing issues for their full-time employees already living here. County officials, recognizing the need for dedicated workforce housing to keep this industry alive, have expedited the permitting process. The SCW has created turnkey dormitory style housing plans that can be used by all farmers, to take the guesswork out of meeting federal requirements and thereby speeding up the building approval process. So far the effort has been paying off, with five projects currently under construction at the time of this writing, representing almost 200 bed units for agricultural housing. Given that the grape growers themselves are paying for the construction of this housing, on their own land, also frees up rentals in the county that can be used for residents here, alleviating the affordable housing crisis.

“They [wine grape growers] are using their own property, their own funding, and their time to do all of this,” says Kruse. “It’s not tax payer dollars going to build this workforce housing, it’s private funding. I don’t know of any other industry in Sonoma County that’s really doing that and offering that much housing for their employees.”

Currently 29 percent of wine grape growers offer workforce housing.


Keeping our environment clean and maintaining our sense of place

A major benefit of our county, for both residents and those who visit here, are our natural resources. From the coast, to the Russian River, to our mountains and valleys, Sonoma County prides itself on protecting and preserving its open space and waters.

“We have some of the most beautiful, rich and natural resources anywhere in the world here in Sonoma County,” says County Supervisor James Gore. “As a business community, an environmentalist community and a political community, we have to be in a position to protect and enhance, and have a regenerative focus on our watershed and our place,” he says. “The recent fires have made this protection more important than ever. We are rapidly deploying resources to make sure that a flooding disaster doesn’t come on the heels of a fire.”

Gore has been especially dedicated to building forward-looking water plans for our communities, to ensure future water availability for the population, the natural ecosystem, agriculture, and businesses.

The primary water artery for Sonoma County is the Russian River, with two major flood control and drinking water reservoirs providing drinking water to more than 600,000 residents in portions of Sonoma and Marin counties.  Residents and tourists use the river for swimming, canoeing and fishing, and an endangered species of fish, the coho salmon, and the threatened steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, reside in the Russian River.

The Russian River also flows into the Laguna Wetlands Complex, which was designated a Ramsar Site—a wetland site designated of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental environmental treaty established in 1971 by UNESCO that “provides for national action and international cooperation regarding the conservation of wetlands, and wise sustainable use of their resources.”

Gore hopes to update outdated water supply systems, invest in water banking and better atmospheric river forecasting and technology that will help secure future water supplies and help in times of inevitable drought, work on conservation efforts, and enhance habitats for endangered fish species.

“The Russian River is our most vital natural resource, fueling our economy and landscape, while providing drinking water to 600,000 people. Without the Russian River our community is dead. Whether you live in Cloverdale or in Northern Marin County, if you fill up your water from your tap, it’s Russian River water. The economy and everything that’s built upon that source depends on it continuing to provide for us.”











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