Sonoma County Board of Supervisors calls for more study of revised well rules

Proposed regulations would require applicants for commercial, agricultural and domestic wells to undergo a review of potential impacts to nearby public trust resources, and require meters for new non-domestic wells.|

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors put off adopting changes to the county’s well regulations on Tuesday, citing the need for additional analysis and more public outreach.

County planning staff presented supervisors with revisions aimed at bringing the county’s well ordinance in line with California’s Public Trust Doctrine, a legal policy mandating local government protect certain waterways for public uses, including commerce, recreation, navigation and habitat.

Those waterways — rivers and their tributaries — are referred to as “public trust resources.” The Russian River, Petaluma River and Sonoma Creek are considered main, navigable waterways in the region that fall under the public trust definition.

In a meeting beset with technical troubles, county staff on Tuesday proposed the board approve regulations that would require applicants for commercial, agricultural and domestic wells to undergo a review of potential impacts to any nearby public trust resources, and require meters for new non-domestic wells.

The public trust review process would require applicants to provide information including water-use estimates, construction details and hydrogeology reports, according to a staff report.

Applicants seeking a permit for a replacement well that takes in less than 2 acre-feet of water annually would not have to go through the public trust review. An acre-foot is equal to 325,851 gallons, or about the amount of water used by up to two average California households in a year.

The proposals follow a lawsuit the California Coastkeeper Alliance filed against the county in July 2021 seeking compliance with the Public Trust Doctrine. That case is still ongoing.

There are approximately 45,000 to 50,000 wells in Sonoma County, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency.

Wick could not immediately confirm the number of permitted wells.

Several sticking points emerged as supervisors weighed the proposals.

Supervisor Susan Gorin was concerned that wells on the same property would be reviewed individually. She questioned why a hypothetical estate with multiple domestic wells drawing under 2 acre-feet of water would not be reviewed based on the property’s overall water consumption.

Several board members including, Supervisor Chris Coursey, also expressed interest in requiring metering for all wells, not just non-domestic wells, or creating an incentive program for permit holders to install meters.

There was similar strong support for the collection of more data and analysis to study the proposed ordinance’s impact.

“Really, we need to have a holistic, comprehensive approach. We have a scattered approach,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “I think we’re not quite honestly serving the public. We’re leaving a lot of questions out there.”

Gorin and other supervisors stressed the need for that analysis to include a look at the collective footprint of wells.

“I think we need to get a handle on the cumulative impact of all of the wells,” Gorin said.

Those concerns were buoyed by requests from the public for the board to delay the changes, for a variety of reasons based on different interest groups.

Drev Hunt, legal director for California Coastkeeper Alliance, the group behind the lawsuit, also asked the board to wait in order to develop an ordinance that solidly complies with the doctrine.

“The ordinance is the start in the right direction but it’s not going to ensure that everything that needs to get done is done,” Hunt said.

He called for the county to require metering and monitoring of all wells, not just new wells.

Peter Kiel, a local environmental attorney, said he had agricultural, industrial and rural clients who would be negatively impacted if the ordinance changes were adopted as written.

Kiel said the county needed to develop more specific criteria that applicants could reasonably meet.

“Applicants bear the burden of bringing forward proof to (Permit Sonoma’s) satisfaction,” Kiel said.

Kiel and several others also complained of a lack of community outreach done in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.

The ongoing Coastkeeper Alliance lawsuit adds urgency to the county’s need to adopt changes complying with the Public Trust Doctrine. In light of that, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton advised the board to address well permitting issues on two separate tracks: the public trust obligations, and the other areas of interest including a well best-practices program.

“I get it this is a big issue and there’s a lot of interconnected parts,” Bratton said. “But I think we need to unfortunately separate them and take the public trust doctrine and deal with it.”

Supervisors appeared to accept Bratton’s point. They were unanimous in asking for more data to better understand how the regulations would impact new and existing well permit holders, and how those regulations could tie into the county’s broader well and groundwater oversight.

The board also requested staff gather more input from stakeholders, including those connected with local groundwater sustainability agencies formed as a result of changes in state law.

“The public engagement is mandatory,” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said. “I think we need to let folks know what’s coming down the pipe.”

New IOLERO director

The board took up a few other notable items on its agenda, including appointing a new director of the county’s Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach.

John Alden was unanimously approved to lead the law enforcement watchdog agency. He is expected to start Sept. 6 with a $189,093 salary, plus other benefits and compensation, said Christina Cramer, the county’s human resources director.

Alden, a former prosecutor in Sonoma and Marin counties, worked in civilian law enforcement oversight for the city of San Francisco from 2016 to 2018, and in Oakland from 2019 to this year, according to the county.

“I admire that this county has been working so hard on this issue for so many years,” Alden said, following the board’s vote.

He stressed the importance of working with the public and broader community as part of the office’s responsibilities, including investigating public complaints about the county Sheriff’s Office and reviewing its internal investigations.

Alden replaces former director Karlene Navarro who left the position after being appointed to the Sonoma County Superior Court bench last year.

He is one of several officials newly appointed or elected to leadership roles in the county’s criminal justice division.

“A new sheriff, a new district attorney, a new public defender and a new chief probation officer — that is the core of the (county’s) criminal justice department,” Gorin said.

New campaign contribution limits

The board also unanimously voted to revise the county’s cap on campaign contributions to $3,500 per election, with a biannual adjustment calculated using the California Consumer Price Index rounded to the nearest hundred.

The county last updated its campaign contribution limits in 2008.

Gorin called the limit “high” and asked if it could be lower.

“I think our enormously high contribution limits benefit incumbents far more than anyone else,” Gorin said.

Robert Pittman, the county’s top attorney, said the county could not go lower because of how the state’s law is written.

Sonoma County’s limit is already lower than the state limit of $4,900 and the costs of running a campaign in Sonoma County can range from less than $10,000 to more than $100,000, said Petra Bruggisser, deputy county counsel.

To go lower, the county would need proof of corruption connected to campaign finance, Pittman said.

“The case is pretty clear that we can’t do it just to keep the money out of politics,” Pittman said.

The changes are effective Jan. 1, 2023.

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or On Twitter @MurphReports.

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