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Sonoma County staff to propose new well permit regulations

The revisions are intended to align the county’s well ordinance with California’s Public Trust Doctrine, which requires local governments to protect public-use waterways, such as those used for commerce, recreation, navigation or habitat.|

Sonoma County staff are polishing off a new draft of revisions to the county’s well regulations after the county Board of Supervisors delayed adopting the original revisions in order to obtain more community input on the possible impacts of the changes.

The revisions are intended to align the county’s well ordinance with California’s Public Trust Doctrine, which requires local governments to protect public-use waterways , such as those used for commerce, recreation, navigation or habitat.

The core of any proposed changes would require well permit applicants to meet certain criteria based on their proximity to protected waterways and use of groundwater. There would also be a public trust review of the well’s potential impact on those nearby waterways.

There are approximately 45,000 to 50,000 wells in Sonoma County, according to Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency. The new regulations could affect any wells countywide that come under a new application or are up for renewal.

Staff from the county’s permitting department have developed a revised set of changes and will present them during an informational webinar Thursday afternoon. Their suggestions will then go before the board Oct. 4 during a public hearing.

Supervisors concerns about the original well ordinance revisions included whether they should require or encourage metering for all wells — not just commercial wells using over 2-acre feet of water.

They also want the ordinance to better identify geographical areas in the county where a public trust review would be required, as well as whether the county should adjust the maximum water consumption amount — 2 acre-feet of water — to identify applicants that do not need to undergo the 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 average household use is about a half-acre-foot of water in a year, according to Permit Sonoma, which is drafting the well ordinance revisions.

County staff have suggested a fee of $1,392 for applicants undergoing a review.

The cost is equal to about eight hours of work by an engineer or geologist, said Bradley Dunn, policy manager for Permit Sonoma. Any money not spent would be returned to the applicant at the end of the review, which is projected to take about a month, Dunn said.

The new changes heading to the board for approval in October include a revised map that more clearly shows the areas that are subject to the review. There will also be a set of water conservation requirements that would apply to industrial, agricultural and other non-domestic users.

The new proposal also more clearly establishes a pathway for those who would not need to undergo the review. This includes domestic users consuming less than 2-acre feet of water, and non-domestic users who are not going to be increasing their water consumption, Dunn said.

He added that the new proposal does look to evaluate wells based on the user’s total water consumption on the property, not just the consumption from the well being applied for.

“We want to see the cumulative total,” Dunn said.

The county’s work coincides with an ongoing lawsuit the California Coastkeeper Alliance filed against the county in July 2021 that seeks compliance with the Public Trust Doctrine.

A hearing in the case is scheduled for November.

Drevet Hunt, legal director for the Coastkeeper Alliance, said there are elements of the new proposed changes the alliance likes, but overall called the new proposal “a step back.”

“It seems like they’re taking the position that all they have to do is consider whether there are impacts,” Hunt said. “But they don’t have to make sure that something is done about it.”

Hunt added that a stronger ordinance would include a provision for mitigating the impacts of permitted wells “to the extent capable.”

“This ordinance doesn’t do that,” Hunt said.

Dayna Ghirardelli, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, called for the county to “take a more thoughtful approach” that includes assembling a working group of local experts, interest groups and public officials to weigh in.

“This is something that is going to affect all landowners, all rural landowners, anybody who wants a well,” Ghirardell said.

Particular concerns for Ghirardell include the potential extra time it would take to process a permit undergoing a public trust review and the time associated with going through that process.

Ghirardell’s and Hunt’s comments are a continuation of feedback the board heard in August, when community members resoundingly asked the county to put more analysis into the revisions, though the cited reasons for more study varied based on different interest groups.

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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