Sonoma County unveils first-ever proposed well water fees under pioneering California groundwater law
In a dramatic shift from California’s history of allowing landowners to freely pump and consume water from their own wells, Sonoma County’s rural residents and many others will soon begin paying for the water drawn from beneath their feet.
In the sprawling 81,284-acre Santa Rosa Plain groundwater basin, the proposed regulatory fee for a rural resident is $18 to $25 a year, much lower than the rates in the more sparsely populated Petaluma and Sonoma valleys.
In the 44,846-acre Sonoma Valley basin, the fee would be $48 to $80 a year, and in the 46,661-acre Petaluma Valley basin, it would be $115 to $200 a year.
The residential fees are based on an assumption that rural residents typically pump a half-acre foot of well water a year. Most homes do not have water meters and none will be installed under the fee program.
Large groundwater water users — including ranches, cities, water districts and businesses — would pay fees based on the volume of water drawn from their wells.
Fees in the Santa Rosa basin would be $35 to $50 per acre foot, in Sonoma Valley $95 to $160 per acre foot and in Petaluma Valley $230 to $400 per acre foot.
The proposed fees, unveiled in a series of public Zoom meetings last month, stem from a state law mandating payments to support locally tailored plans to sustain groundwater resources for the next 50 years, including a 20-year drought.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 required 94 of California’s 515 groundwater basins to form agencies to implement the plans.
Those basins, combined with areas that have already established groundwater oversight, account for 98% — 20 million acre feet — of pumped water within the state’s groundwater basins, according to the Department of Water Resources.
Sonoma County’s groundwater sustainability agency governing boards — appointed by agency members, including cities, towns, water and conservation districts, county supervisors and the county water agency — will consider various fee proposals at their meetings this month.
The three boards must adopt funding plans in June and if any regulatory fees are approved they would most likely be included in the fall property tax bills, said Ann DuBay, a Sonoma Water manager who is administrator of the Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.
Should any basin decline to set groundwater fees, the state would impose a flat fee of $40 per acre foot. An acre foot of water is enough to supply about 2.3 households for one year.
Sustainability involves monitoring of groundwater conditions to “ensure clean and plentiful groundwater for future users … while allowing for reasonable and managed growth,” DuBay said.
“We have to close the (groundwater) data gap and fix all the problems,” she said. “It starts to add up to some significant dollars in each basin.”
The operating cost of the Santa Rosa and Petaluma agencies is about $1.1 million a year and the Sonoma Valley agency, already faced with declining groundwater, costs about $1.2 million — not including any capital costs.
The wide range of proposed fees for rural residents and large water users is due to the number of well owners in each basin, with 9,000 well parcels in the Santa Rosa basin, 1,250 in the Petaluma Valley and 3,000 in Sonoma Valley.
A well parcel is property assumed to be using groundwater because it has no other water source or may be receiving water from another source, such as a city, but is known to have a well.
In each basin, the lower fee assumes grants will cover 40% of the costs and the higher figure applies if no grant funds are available.
Each basin has received more than $2 million in grants to cover work from 2017 to this year. “That’s been great,” DuBay said.
Since 2017, existing local agencies have been paying the sustainability program costs that must now be covered by the three groundwater basin agencies.
The proposed regulatory fees are one of several revenue options, including well head fees (a flat fee per well), parcel taxes that would require two-thirds voter approval and benefit assessment districts, which also require voter approval.
David Noren, a Sebastopol area resident and member of the Santa Rosa Groundwater Sustainability Agency Advisory Board, considers the proposed fees entirely reasonable.
“We’re talking about a shared common resource,” he said. “It’s not your groundwater, it’s our groundwater. We’re all drinking out of the same milkshake.”
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