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Sonoma County supervisors Tuesday unanimously approved sweeping new limits on well drilling, making the most significant changes to the county’s water well ordinance in nearly 40 years.

The revised ordinance establishes well-construction standards to prevent groundwater contamination, incorporates new protective buffer zones along streams and requires new wells be equipped with monitoring devices to measure groundwater levels in the future.

The rules also prohibit drilling new wells into streams and wetlands and require that property owners pay a $150 annual fee to test water, ensuring it is safe for drinking.

The updates, made amid California’s historic drought, are meant partly to prevent new wells from sucking streams dry and diminishing connected underground supplies. The rules also are intended to shield streams from sediment and other pollution that can be unleashed during well construction.

The revised regulations, however, apply only to new wells and do not cover the estimated 40,000 wells that now exist outside of city limits. The action also does not establish a limit on the number of new wells permitted by the county or require any reductions of water usage.

Supervisors called the updates overdue, though board members said they were concerned the new rules did not sufficiently address the depletion of aquifers and streams amid the drought.

“We’re in the fourth year of a drought, and everyone is justifiably concerned about where we’re going in Sonoma County to make sure we use our water responsibly,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Susan Gorin said. “It’s important, and it’s about time. The whole community is waiting for us to be more proactive about the number of wells we’re permitting.”

Supervisors put off for a later date conversations about how to address declining water availability or the impact of less water on natural resources.

County officials, along with environmental groups, well drillers and land rights groups, have been working on the well ordinance revisions since 2010, said Nathan Quarles, an engineering division manager for the Permit and Resource Management Department.

“These are just construction standards,” Quarles said.

The issue, though certain to ripple across Wine Country, drew a small crowd of about eight people. Many said they were mainly concerned that the new rules do not address water usage by rural residents or farmers, over-pumping of some of the county’s groundwater basins or the impact of the drought on sensitive plant and animal habitat in riparian areas.

“I believe the county must manage new well permits in a way that does not harm endangered species,” said Kimberly Burr, a Forestville resident. “Groundwater extraction without analysis or controls … kills salmon and ruins aquifers.”

Burr and others pushed supervisors to address declining water levels now, ahead of the state regulation set in motion earlier this year.

“The time is now,” Burr said.

Rue Furch, a former Sonoma County planning commissioner, urged the county to consider groundwater supplies beyond the region’s main aquifers.

“There’s an awful lot of the county not identified in (the state groundwater legislation),” Furch said, noting that only parts of the Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley basins are identified as priorities, and therefore fall under limits in the new state law.

Supervisors requested a future hearing, with numerous county department heads, to review the connection between surface and groundwater, as well as identify policy options that could mitigate drought impacts.

The new stream setbacks approved Tuesday include 100-foot buffer zones near feedlots and areas where underground hazardous materials are stored, 30-foot protected areas along lakes, streams and wetlands and 20-foot separations between wells.

Supervisors last year adopted a more expansive set of protective buffers along 3,200 miles of waterways in the county, but that action did not include wells.

Officials said they plan to hold a more robust discussion on whether to increase the setbacks for wells later this year.

“What is the criteria we’re using to make sure we’re not harming the stream?” Supervisor David Rabbitt asked.

Supervisors Efren Carrillo and Shirlee Zane echoed Rabbitt’s questions, calling for additional discussion.

The ordinance also requires property owners to test well water annually to make sure it does not include contaminants. Zane recommended that the ordinance encourage voluntary compliance, and that property owners disclose through the resource management department when they’ve cleaned up their wells instead of recording the information on the property deed.

“We need to provide the carrot approach rather than the stick,” Zane said. “I don’t want it to stay on the property deed for ever and ever.”

Daniel Sanchez, government affairs director for the North Bay Association of Realtors in Sonoma County, applauded the decision.

“Leaving it on a deed when the problem has been addressed doesn’t make any sense,” Sanchez said.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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