Santa Rosa Plain groundwater fees OK’d, but residents and businesses won’t pay for three years

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A new era of groundwater regulation in Sonoma County is set to begin next month, with fees assessed on farmers, businesses and rural residents.

They won’t have to pay those fees for at least three years, because major municipal water users will foot part of the bill over that initial period. Sonoma County and Sonoma Water will provide a contribution through 2022 of up to $240,000 yearly to offset the fees of residential, agricultural, school and other groundwater users.

The Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Sustainability Agency unanimously approved a plan Thursday to assess a fee of $19.90 per acre-foot of groundwater use — about 326,000 gallons — from the Santa Rosa Plain groundwater basin for three years.

The money will go to cover agency operations and development of the sustainability plan. The area groundwater agency already has received a $1 million grant from the state for its operations, and will charge the major municipal users a combined total of $101,885 a year to make up the rest of its budget. At the high end, Santa Rosa will contribute $31,800 a year to the agency, while the much smaller town of Windsor will kick in a mere $995 per year.

Under a state law passed in 2014 and intended to mitigate the effects of drought, medium- and high-priority groundwater basins are required to establish agencies to create and manage groundwater sustainability plans.

Locally, another wrinkle is that Sebastopol has not yet joined the area groundwater agency, since its membership is awaiting City Council approval. It will pay $19,977 in fees whether or not it joins. If it does join, Sebastopol will have to pay an extra $23,800 annually for three years.

The plan approved has generated pushback from rural groundwater users, who contend costs should be redistributed to fall heavier on large users like wine grape vineyards.

Although individual users don't have to pay for three years, the agency set fees at $19.90 per acre-foot for large groundwater users like vineyards. The fees for urban well users were set at $1.99 a year, and $9.95 annually for rural residential landowners based on a calculation of average water usage equal to about 446 gallons a day.

Some rural residents have argued that’s far too high. Douglas Emery, a resident of unincorporated Sebastopol and frequent public commenter at agency meetings, said he couldn’t understand where the estimate came from.

“It’s not correct and it’s not reasonable,” Emery said.

The groundwater agency will commission another study to reassess what fees will be levied on groundwater users before passing a new fee plan after the initial three years, Administrator Andy Rodgers said.

“I know that the actions that we took today are going to allow us to bring something forward in a much more measured and thoughtful way. It’s going to give us more time,” Rodgers said.

Lynda Hopkins, a Sonoma County supervisor and chairwoman of the groundwater agency, agreed that concerns raised by the public will be addressed by the time the next fee plan is instituted.

“We had some passionate public commenters, but they were really talking about the need to refine fees and data going forward, which we’re very much going to be doing,” she said.

In the meantime, the agency will ask rural users to voluntarily provide additional information about how much water is used at each rural property.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story provided incorrect information about who will pay the groundwater fees and how they will be applied.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com.

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