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When Gov. Jerry Brown in September signed a package of three bills designed to curb overpumping of water from underground aquifers, the historic legislation sent fear and panic throughout Sonoma County. Residents who depend on underground wells as their primary source of water contacted county officials to ask how the laws would affect them, and farmers whose operations require a steady supply of water lobbied hard to be included in conversations about restrictions going forward.

County water officials and supervisors heard concerns about mandatory groundwater monitoring and rationing, and fielded questions about fines and penalties associated with pumping.

Sonoma County this week unveiled its first formal response to a wave of queries over the past six months about how California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which establishes the first rules for pumping groundwater in the Golden State, would affect property owners and agriculture.

“Monitoring and conserving groundwater is no longer going to be voluntary,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and director of groundwater management for the Sonoma County Water Agency. “Some people were saying they’re mad, that it infringes on private property rights and water rights, but on the other hand, we’ve also heard from people who are saying it’s about time to regulate groundwater.”

Between now and June 2017, Sonoma County must form a local agency to develop and oversee plans for achieving sustainable groundwater levels in each of the county’s 14 underground basins.

Three of the aquifers — the Santa Rosa Plain, the Sonoma Valley and the Petaluma Valley basins — have been singled out by state water officials as among 127 statewide that are in danger of being depleted. That creates the possibility of saltwater intrusion into freshwater; sinking land; and permanent losses of water storage capacity underground in the county’s three largest basins, which double as major population centers.

California’s drought, now in its fourth year, is exacerbating groundwater depletion. Residential users and farmers increasingly are being forced to rely on underground reserves as surface supplies dwindle. County water officials say that during drought years, 60 percent of the state’s water supply comes from underground reserves.

“There are a lot of pressures on these aquifers,” Jasperse said. “We’re worried about them becoming severely depleted; they’re very vulnerable.”

Sonoma County has seven years to figure out how to prevent permanent damage to its underground basins, and if they aren’t healthy by 2042, the state can step in and take over, imposing steep fines, shutting down wells and relegating local control.

Meanwhile, the county is in the beginning stages of developing a local plan to monitor and manage groundwater supplies, focusing on recharge and conservation.

Supervisors on Tuesday launched a two-year plan to gather input from cities, agricultural users, environmental groups and property owners. Local government agencies, in charge of land use and water supplies, said they’ll use that input to come up with future groundwater policies. Those could include registering and monitoring wells, setting minimum distances between new wells, requiring users to report how much water is being pumped and imposing fees on property owners to fund groundwater recharge and conservation projects.

The regulations come as California develops sweeping new rules in an attempt to adapt to future water shortages. Brown, with state legislators, on Thursday introduced a $1 billion drought relief package aimed at fast-tracking water infrastructure projects that could encourage development of desalination and recycled water systems. Days before, the State Water Board imposed restrictions on residential water use.

Ellen Hanak, an expert with the Public Policy Institute of California who specializes in natural resources management and water, said the measures are pressing. She said previously, the absence of groundwater regulation encouraged overpumping, and people across the state are feeling the impacts.

“Drought conditions have made this groundwater legislation more urgent,” she said. “There’s no question that people are turning to groundwater because there is less surface water available, and as a result, water tables are dropping.”

Supervisors acknowledged concerns from landowners and farmers concerned about losing private property rights, and from environmental groups who say regulating groundwater is far overdue. Despite differing views, supervisors said the county should embrace new state rules.

“This is a whole new world,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents Sonoma County on various water policy-making bodies. “Our entire water system — surface water and groundwater — is tied together, so looking at them individually does not make sense.”

Supervisors on Tuesday authorized $155,000 to pay for consulting and public outreach.

Pete Parkinson, who ran the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department for 11 years, is being paid $115,000 to work with stakeholders during the first phase of the new groundwater laws, which require counties to develop a so-called groundwater sustainability agency. Parkinson is tasked with gathering input from agriculture groups, city councils and environmental activists.

Jasperse said Parkinson was hired because of his extensive work on county land use and water issues over his 17 years as a county planner.

“This is a very modest first step,” Jasperse said. “But we’re trying to be sensitive and inclusive.”

The county’s plan, unveiled at a Board of Supervisors meeting this week, builds on local efforts to measure groundwater levels in three of the county’s biggest aquifers. Studies from the U.S. Geological Survey show problems with overpumping, Jasperse said.

In Sonoma Valley, saltwater is seeping into underground reservoirs and land is sinking. The Santa Rosa Plain also has problems, including depleted reservoir levels, and early evidence shows that in Petaluma Valley, groundwater levels are also sinking. Those issues are likely to spread as the drought persists, county water officials said.

“The brunt of the problem is underground, but we’re also seeing more pumping leading to declining surface levels,” Jasperse said.

Jasperse and other water experts said other underground aquifers, such as the Alexander Valley reservoir, could face future restrictions if the drought and overpumping continue.

Supervisor James Gore, who worked at a federal agency that specializes in collaborating with farmers on natural resource projects, said he is looking forward to working with critics of the new state laws, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

“This is the most important water legislation we’ve seen in 100 years — it’s huge,” Gore said. “We have drought, coupled with unsustainable water use, so we need to do something before we run our landscape dry.”

Gore said he plans to work with his board colleagues and Water Agency officials to come up with plans to conserve water conservation and recharge projects — by flooding lands surrounding the bank of the Russian River, for example, to replenish underground reserves. County officials said the cost of those projects could be paid for by assessing fees on property owners and with state grants.

Jane Nielson, co-founder of the Sonoma County Water Coalition, said the county should pursue more aggressive conservation programs.

“We have to start worrying about what’s going to happen if this drought continues,” Nielson said.

Tito Sasaki, president of the 3,000-member Farm Bureau, which opposed Brown’s legislation, said his primary concern is formation of the local agency to implement the new rules.

“Whichever agency is in control is going to have wide powers to police, tax and regulate groundwater, so although we are worried about restrictions, we think the decisions being made right now are very important,” Sasaki said. “We have always believed that groundwater comes with the property, so if I own the property, it’s my groundwater. But that’s no longer true. We’re preparing to live in this new era.”

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

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