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Sonoma County planning officials on Monday unveiled the most significant changes in nearly 40 years to the county’s underground well ordinance, which sets in place rules property owners must follow when drilling a new water well.

The proposed changes would prohibit new wells from being installed within 30 feet of streams. They would also prevent new wells from being drilled within between 20 feet and 100 feet of existing wells, depending on the ground water basin. The rules would also ban well drilling into streams.

The changes, slated to go before the Board of Supervisors early next year, would not affect the estimated 40,000 wells that now exist outside of city limits or establish a limit on the number of new wells permitted by the county.

County planning officials said the proposed revisions — to a well ordinance adopted in 1978 — have been on the drawing board for years, before the onset of the current drought. The goal is to prevent new wells from sucking streams dry and diminishing connected underground supplies. The rules are also intended to shield streams from sediment and other pollution that can be unleashed during well construction.

“Right now you can drill and pump as much as you want,” said Nathan Quarles, an engineer with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “Some of that is causing harm to fisheries.”

The county is seeking public input on the revised rules through a series of meetings this week. Tuesday’s meeting, from 9 a.m. to noon, and Thursday’s, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., are at the Permit and Resource Management Department, 2550 Ventura Ave. Santa Rosa.

The federal agency in charge of salmon and steelhead recovery is taking issue with revisions, contending the 30-foot setback may not do enough to protect imperiled fish species. Wells in some areas should be further away from streams to protect surface- and sub-surface flows, a federal biologist said.

“The closer a well is located to a stream, the more likely it is that the user is drawing down water that helps supply the stream channel, and very quickly you can see the water levels go down as you pump,” said Rick Rogers, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “Drawing down water from riparian areas can interrupt the recharge of cold water that is especially critical during summer months for juvenile steelhead and salmon.”

Jennifer Barrett, the deputy director for planning at PRMD, said the county’s general plan, adopted in 2008, allows for development of new well regulations to improve data collection and conserve surface and underground water supplies.

Tito Sasaki, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said he hasn’t identified any specific problems with the proposed well rules. He said his organization is studying the revisions to identify conflicts with other looming regulations. Those include the rules on groundwater pumping — required by recently approved state legislation — and the county’s proposal to establish 50- to 200-foot setbacks along 3,200 miles of streams to shield them from development and agriculture.

“We’re paying attention to the well ordinance because underground water is extremely important for farmers,” Sasaki said. “When we don’t have other sources of water, we have to depend on groundwater.”

The narrower streamside setbacks for new wells would permit drilling activity within the riparian buffer zones the county is considering for adoption this year. That allowance that could spark opposition from environmentalists and others who are urging the county to establish strong protections for waterways and wildlife.

Quarles said the well ordinance would not result in monitoring of aquifer levels or set restrictions on pumping. Those measures could come under the new state groundwater laws, which require the county to have management plans in place for its groundwater basins.

Sonoma County has adopted two groundwater management plans, one for the Santa Rosa Plain and one in Sonoma Valley. Both documents have identified areas that are being overpumped.

Rogers, with the National Marine Fisheries Service, said under any new rules the county should take aquifer levels into account before permitting a new well.

“The issue here is that neither groundwater management plans nor the county well ordinance keeps track of how many new wells are being drilled, and whether those wells should even be drilled,” Rogers said. “There has to be some analysis and monitoring when sinking a well, addressing whether it will be a drain on groundwater in the area.”

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

Editor’s Note: This story originally stated that new wells would need to be 100 feet from existing wells. In some cases, the proposed rules set the actual range from between 20 feet to 100 feet.

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