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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approves temporary halt in new wells

The board’s decision Tuesday imposed a countywide moratorium on all but emergency wells. It followed hours of deliberation over proposed new regulations spurred by an environmental lawsuit.|

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has imposed a six-month halt in all new wells countywide, a far-reaching move likely to impact residential and commercial property owners seeking to tap groundwater amid a historic drought.

The immediate drilling moratorium, which offers only a narrow exemption for emergency water needs, is meant to give the county more time to draw up a new set of well regulations aimed to safeguard surface and subsurface flows in the county’s major watersheds.

A 2021 lawsuit by the environmental group California Coastkeeper Alliance spurred the work toward new regulations, and the Board of Supervisors was scheduled to vote on the new rules Tuesday.

Instead, after hours of deliberation over a proposed well ordinance that would have established new requirements reflecting updated state policy for well permit applicants, the board voted 4-1 to impose a moratorium, seeking to buy time for additional work.

Supervisors cited concerns including the potential impact the ordinance would have on agricultural users, and potential legal ramifications connected to California’s environmental quality laws. The new regulations could affect any wells countywide that come under a new application or are up for renewal.

“We're in a rush and good things don’t come out of that normally,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said, noting pressures from an ongoing, related lawsuit.

Supervisor James Gore, whose north county district includes some of the county’s most prolific wine grape growing areas, voted against the moratorium.

Gore said he felt his proposal to adopt an interim policy and update that policy in six months was a better route.

The countywide ban will be in effect from Tuesday until April 4. New wells for emergency purposes and others that were already in the pipeline will still be permitted during that time.

Still, the moratorium could have a chilling effect on business for well drillers in the county.

Tyler Judson, co-owner of Weeks Drilling and Pump Co. in Sebastopol, said his company typically drills four to 10 wells a month. He was studying Tuesday’s decision for how it would impact new jobs.

“We'll definitely be reviewing and trying to plot a new course,” he said in a brief phone interview Tuesday.

The county’s proposed well ordinance revisions were first discussed in August, when the Board of Supervisors sought to expand community input and refine the scope of affected wells.

Since 1995, the county has issued permits for 11,362 wells. More than 40,000 wells are estimated to exist countywide, according to Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency.

The impact of that demand on streams is not well documented locally.

But local governments in California must now take it into account when permitting wells. Specifically, they must apply what’s known as the Public Trust Doctrine and ensure protection of navigable rivers and streams — referred to as “public trust resources” — when permitting wells under a 2018 appellate court ruling.

The safeguards are meant to protect such waterways for public uses, including commerce, recreation, navigation and habitat. In Sonoma County, affected waterways include the Russian River, Petaluma River and Sonoma Creek.

The lawsuit filed last year by the Coastkeeper Alliance seeks to pressure the county to align its local rules with more stringent state standards.

Since August, the Board of Supervisors has balanced that pressure from environmental interests, who are seeking broader and stricter regulations, and those in the county’s agricultural industry, who say the ordinance as proposed would put too heavy a burden on rural residents and farmers.

Both groups have called for the county not to rush through an unclear policy.

Drevet Hunt, legal director for the Coastkeeper Alliance, called the moratorium’s passage “groundbreaking,” noting that he was not aware of any other county taking a similar action.

“We are encouraged that the county is taking very serious, its duties around protecting public trust resources,” Hunt said, adding the county’s approach to policymaking needed to be “evidence based, science based, fact based.”

County supervisors on Tuesday committed to creating a technical advisory committee of local experts to help guide the next phase of work.

The committee is expected to review the proposed ordinance from county planning staff — including feedback given by the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday — and bring recommendations back to supervisors in six months.

Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, welcomed the opportunity for more review and input.

“Unfortunately, the moratorium puts a stop to any new wells until a policy is adopted,” Ghirardelli said in an email. “But this allows for proper consideration and outlining of a more sound policy in the long run.”

On Tuesday, county staff outlined various pathways for permit applicants based on level of water consumption and type, including residential and agriculture, and proximity to public trust waterways. Wells meeting certain criteria would be subject to a public trust review — a process that could require applicant provide additional information including water-use estimates, construction details and hydrogeology reports.

The county processes about 300 permits a year, said Nathan Quarles, Permit Sonoma’s deputy director of construction and engineering. Of that number, about 20 might need to go through the public trust review, Quarles estimated.

Staff also proposed a $1,400 fee for permit review. The cost is equal to about eight hours of work and would be adjusted based on the final total hours worked, Quarles said.

The crux of supervisors’ back and forth on Tuesday, was how to determine which geographical areas should be included as areas where a public trust review may be required. Board members, including Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, worried that any map adopted Tuesday would lock the county in legally and be difficult to adjust after further study.

“I would like to see a map that is a living document that relies on best available science,” Hopkins said.

Several supervisors including Gore, Hopkins and Rabbitt also raised concerns about the cost for applicants going through the process. Rabbitt and Gore noted that the cost of applying for a permit extends beyond the county’s fees and includes hiring professionals and experts to complete studies and meet county requirements.

“The overall cost of the project is what really leads to what we talked about earlier,” Rabbitt said referring to an earlier discussion of the county’s annual crop report and its struggling dairy industry. “The demise of encore sectors of the economy not only in this county but elsewhere, and it is death by a thousand cuts.”

Staff Writer Kathleen Coates contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

Emma Murphy

County government, politics reporter

The decisions of Sonoma County’s elected leaders and those running county government departments impact people’s lives in real, direct ways. Your local leaders are responsible for managing the county’s finances, advocating for support at the state and federal levels, adopting policies on public health, housing and business — to name a few — and leading emergency response and recovery.
As The Press Democrat’s county government and politics reporter, my job is to spotlight their work and track the outcomes.

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