Sonoma County on path to regulating groundwater supplies

Local officials host public meetings ahead of June 30 deadline to devise regulatory authority over groundwater in Sonoma County.|

The first of three meetings to gather public feedback on a new regulatory framework for groundwater in Sonoma County drew a standing-room only crowd in Petaluma on Thursday night.

Concerns raised about the new regulations ranged from who is to be subjected to them, to how the rules will be enforced. Out-of-pocket costs were another worry.

“How much are we looking at?” asked Norma Giddings, who lives west of Petaluma and was among more than 100 people at the Petaluma Community Center.

The question underscored the many unknowns with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which seeks to regulate groundwater for the first time in California when the law goes into effect in 2022.

Officials on Thursday went over in detail, as they have in previous meetings, the progress they’ve made toward establishing local agencies to implement the state-mandated groundwater program.

They said much more will be known once those governing boards are in place.

The longer-term implications of the program seem much less clear. That includes how the five agencies forming the Petaluma Valley’s “groundwater sustainability agency” are to divvy up the estimated $470,000 startup costs for the new group.

“We’re figuring out how we are splitting up the pie right now, which is making for some interesting conversations,” said Kara Heckert with the Sonoma Resource Conservation District, which is the lead agency.

The state law gives newly formed local boards the authority to assess fees, require monitoring on wells, set new standards and implement capital projects and other measures in an effort to maintain the health of regional groundwater supplies.

Local authorities, including city and county governments, water agencies and special districts, face a June 30 deadline to have the governance structure in place.

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes Petaluma, estimated costs for the program would amount to $2 or $3 a month.

“We’re not talking a huge cost,” Rabbitt said.

But officials said they don’t know yet how that cost structure will be applied, such as whether fees will be assessed only on well owners, or on all parcel owners within basins being monitored.

The law identified three basins out of 14 in Sonoma County that would require a management plan.

Petaluma Valley’s encompasses 46,000 acres spanning roughly the valley floor between Railroad Avenue in the north and San Pablo Bay in the south. The other basins are the Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain.

Petaluma Valley’s groundwater management agency would be administered by the city of Petaluma, Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Water Agency, the Sonoma Resource Conservation District and the North Bay Water District. It also would include a 10-member advisory group.

Some in attendance Thursday expressed worry the new agency won’t be responsive to their concerns or, conversely, that the group will be another burdensome bureaucracy they have to deal with in their personal and professional lives.

“This is another layer of crap,” Bonnie Merrill, a cattle rancher outside Petaluma, said.

But officials stressed local control of the groundwater rules is preferable to the alternative.

“If we don’t regulate, the state will step in,” said Leah Walker, Petaluma’s environmental services manager.

The next two public sessions on the management plan are:

Sonoma Valley, Monday, 6-8 p.m., Sonoma Charter School multi-purpose room, 17202 Sonoma Highway

Santa Rosa Plain, April 3, 6-8 p.m., Santa Rosa Utilities field office, 35 Stony Point Road.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at?707-521-5336

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