Sonoma County Board of Supervisors calls for more study of revised well rules
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors put off adopting changes to the county’s well regulations on Tuesday, citing the need for additional analysis and more public outreach.
County planning staff presented supervisors with revisions aimed at bringing the county’s well ordinance in line with California’s Public Trust Doctrine, a legal policy mandating local government protect certain waterways for public uses, including commerce, recreation, navigation and habitat.
Those waterways — rivers and their tributaries — are referred to as “public trust resources.” The Russian River, Petaluma River and Sonoma Creek are considered main, navigable waterways in the region that fall under the public trust definition.
In a meeting beset with technical troubles, county staff on Tuesday proposed the board approve regulations that would require applicants for commercial, agricultural and domestic wells to undergo a review of potential impacts to any nearby public trust resources, and require meters for new non-domestic wells.
The public trust review process would require applicants to provide information including water-use estimates, construction details and hydrogeology reports, according to a staff report.
Applicants seeking a permit for a replacement well that takes in less than 2 acre-feet of water annually would not have to go through the public trust 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 proposals follow a lawsuit the California Coastkeeper Alliance filed against the county in July 2021 seeking compliance with the Public Trust Doctrine. That case is still ongoing.
There are approximately 45,000 to 50,000 wells in Sonoma County, said Tennis Wick, director of Permit Sonoma, the county planning agency.
Wick could not immediately confirm the number of permitted wells.
Several sticking points emerged as supervisors weighed the proposals.
Supervisor Susan Gorin was concerned that wells on the same property would be reviewed individually. She questioned why a hypothetical estate with multiple domestic wells drawing under 2 acre-feet of water would not be reviewed based on the property’s overall water consumption.
Several board members including, Supervisor Chris Coursey, also expressed interest in requiring metering for all wells, not just non-domestic wells, or creating an incentive program for permit holders to install meters.
There was similar strong support for the collection of more data and analysis to study the proposed ordinance’s impact.
“Really, we need to have a holistic, comprehensive approach. We have a scattered approach,” Supervisor David Rabbitt said. “I think we’re not quite honestly serving the public. We’re leaving a lot of questions out there.”
Gorin and other supervisors stressed the need for that analysis to include a look at the collective footprint of wells.
“I think we need to get a handle on the cumulative impact of all of the wells,” Gorin said.
Those concerns were buoyed by requests from the public for the board to delay the changes, for a variety of reasons based on different interest groups.
Drev Hunt, legal director for California Coastkeeper Alliance, the group behind the lawsuit, also asked the board to wait in order to develop an ordinance that solidly complies with the doctrine.
“The ordinance is the start in the right direction but it’s not going to ensure that everything that needs to get done is done,” Hunt said.
He called for the county to require metering and monitoring of all wells, not just new wells.
Peter Kiel, a local environmental attorney, said he had agricultural, industrial and rural clients who would be negatively impacted if the ordinance changes were adopted as written.
Kiel said the county needed to develop more specific criteria that applicants could reasonably meet.
“Applicants bear the burden of bringing forward proof to (Permit Sonoma’s) satisfaction,” Kiel said.
Kiel and several others also complained of a lack of community outreach done in advance of Tuesday’s meeting.
The ongoing Coastkeeper Alliance lawsuit adds urgency to the county’s need to adopt changes complying with the Public Trust Doctrine. In light of that, County Administrator Sheryl Bratton advised the board to address well permitting issues on two separate tracks: the public trust obligations, and the other areas of interest including a well best-practices program.
“I get it this is a big issue and there’s a lot of interconnected parts,” Bratton said. “But I think we need to unfortunately separate them and take the public trust doctrine and deal with it.”