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Santa Rosa officials working to boost the city’s backup water supply have tapped into deep fears among residents of a Rincon Valley neighborhood that the installation of an emergency well near their homes might threaten their own water supplies.

About 60 people turned out Wednesday evening to air concerns and learn more about the city’s plan to install a test well on a vacant property on Speers Road the city purchased in December.

The goal is to install a deep well — up to 700 feet — capable of producing up to 500,000 gallons per day in the event the city’s primary water supply, most of which comes from the Russian River, is ever compromised.

“This is an emergency well that we would activate in the event of a catastrophic emergency and it would supply water to meet the basic health and safety needs of the community” such as hospitals and fire suppression, said Jennifer Burke, deputy director of Santa Rosa Water.

But nearby residents, most of whom live in unincorporated county parcels that rely on wells, fret the city’s actions could suck their wells dry, forcing them to hook up to city water, for a fee.

“If they decide the need to pump the heck out of that well for whatever reason, if our well fails, then we’re left holding the bag,” said John Scudero, a semiretired contractor who lives beside the field the city bought for $218,000 in December.

The plan comes at a touchy time for rural homeowners who rely on wells but are concerned about how they’ll be impacted by state plans to regulate groundwater supplies in 127 basins in the state, including three in Sonoma County.

The city, too, has long been worried about its water supply.

The city buys about 95 percent of its water — about 5 billion gallons per year — from the Sonoma County Water Agency, which draws it from below the Russian River and delivers it through huge pipes to the city.

Nearly 20 years ago, the agency, worried about an uncertain supply of Russian River water, began urging the communities it serves in Sonoma and Marin counties to pursue “off-river” water sources, such as wells, to meet peak demand.

Concern about the integrity of the network has also caused the agency to spend millions of dollars in recent years to upgrade its valves and pipelines. It has also given the city further reason to expand its backup water supply, which it considers woefully inadequate.

The city has four wells capable of producing a total of 6 million gallons per day in an emergency. Two are backup wells by Herbert Slater Middle School.

The other two, on Farmers Lane, were upgraded in 2007 to be summertime production wells.

But to meet existing needs, the city says it needs to more than double the current 6 million gallon daily supply. To meet the needs of its envisioned population of 237,000 by 2035, the city says the backup supply needs to triple to 18 million gallons a day.

The city has spent millions exploring potential well locations around the city over the last decade, learning a great deal about the underground aquifers, but not bringing any wells online to date.

Speers Road is one of four sites the city is actively pursuing for such wells. The others are in Oakmont on the site of a former treatment plant, Madrone Elementary School in Rincon Valley and a Place to Play park in northwest Santa Rosa.

A total of 10 to 20 wells might one day be needed to meet the city’s needs, Burke said.

The new director of the city’s water department, Ben Horenstein, apologized at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting for communication about the project, which he said was “perhaps inadequate.”

The city says it followed proper rules in sending letters to residents within 300 feet of the property, but many said they were unaware of the project before a May informational meeting. Those concerned prompted the city to hold the second meeting.

Horenstein vowed there were “not going to be any surprises” for residents going forward and said the city would hold as many meetings as necessary to answer residents’ questions, to the extent possible.

Officials also tried to reassure residents that if the test well didn’t yield the hoped for production rates, the project wouldn’t go forward. If it did reach production rates, there’s no reason to think surrounding wells would be affected, officials said.

For one, the depth of the well the city seeks to install would be far deeper and tapping a different aquifer than the shallower residential wells.

Officials also stressed that emergency wells are only allowed by law to operate for 15 days per year, and only after an emergency.

Neither seemed to mollify residents.

Worries the city might one day seek to transition the wells from stand-by to production wells, such as what happened to the Farmers Lane wells, persisted, despite city assurances that could only happen after another public review process.

Other concerns include the noise of the drilling and disruption from the construction work tying the well into the city’s water system.

Scudero came away from the meeting with more information but many of the same concerns he went into it with, he said. The city, he said, just picked the wrong location.

“I totally agree in concept with what they are trying to do,” he said. “If we were on city water, this might not be a big deal. Unfortunately, they picked a half-acre parcel completely surrounded by other wells.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207.

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