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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors to weigh well regulations, campaign finance changes

Updates to the county’s well ordinance and campaign contribution limits are among several items coming Tuesday before the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.|

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is set to weigh policy changes in two complex and often controversial issues: groundwater use and political spending.

Before the board Tuesday are proposed updates to the county’s well regulations and changes to how it oversees max contributions to political campaigns.

Here’s a look at what’s ahead.

Revisions to well ordinance

As in much of California, regulation of groundwater is a contentious issue in Sonoma County, exacerbated by the ongoing drought.

The board on Tuesday will consider a series of staff-proposed changes to the county’s permitting process for wells. Many of the changes deal with the need to consider impacts to identified waterways the government must protect for public uses like commerce, recreation, navigation and habitat, according to a staff report. 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, the report said. Those watersheds encompass most of the county.

Sonoma County has up to 45,000 registered wells. The county rules apply to those outside city limits.

If passed, the changes would require applicants for commercial, agricultural and domestic wells to undergo a review of potential impacts to any nearby public trust resources, said Bradley Dunn, policy manager at the county’s zoning and permitting department.

Applicants seeking a permit for a replacement well that takes in less than 2 acre feet of water would not have to go through the public trust review, Dunn said. 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.

In addition to the public trust review, the proposed changes also require meters for new non-domestic wells, meaning those that are used for uses including commercial and agriculture.

Applicants going through the public trust review process would need to provide information including water-use estimates, construction details and hydrogeology reports, according to a staff report.

Dunn could not provide a timeline of how long the review takes, noting it varies by use and location, among other factors.

“All of this is complicated by the soils, which aquifer you’re in, how deep your well is,” Dunn said, rattling off some of the contributing factors.

Anyone planning to apply for a well permit should get help navigating the regulations from well professionals because of the complexity, Dunn said.

“We’re going to continue to work with the area’s well and septic professionals to make sure they have the right information to inform their clients of the process,” Dunn said.

New contribution limits

The board will also be asked to approve limiting campaign contributions to $3,500 per election. The county’s current contribution limit is $3,517.75, according to a staff report.

If approved, the change will also establish an automatic schedule for updating the limit. Any adjustment would take place biannually and would be calculated using the California Consumer Price Index rounded to the nearest hundred.

The consumer price index is the average change over time in what urban consumers pay for goods and services.

The purpose behind establishing and maintaining a campaign contribution limit is to safeguard against corruption and any quid pro quos, County Counsel Robert Pittman said.

The county’s ordinance has not been updated since 2008, when the limit was set at $2,500 with a biannual 5% increase, the report said.

The county established its first contribution limit in 1984 at $1,000 per election for county supervisor candidates, the report said. The limit has been increased and expanded to cover other elected officials over the following decades.

The limit would apply to campaigns and committees controlled by a candidate running for election, Pittman said.

The change also clarifies that the limit would apply to any candidate running to replace an incumbent in a recall election.

Last year’s recall election targeting Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch was a driving factor behind the push to update the county’s campaign contribution policies, Pittman said.

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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