Santa Rosa Plain groundwater fees OK'd, but residents and businesses won't pay for 3 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 municipal water users will foot the $305,655 bill over that initial period.

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. Through 2022, the agency’s major municipal groundwater member users — namely the cities and towns that fall under the agency’s jurisdiction, along with Sonoma Water — have agreed to pick up the tab in place of individual groundwater users.

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. Some of the money will come from water bill rate increases in cities and towns, while portions will come from the county budget and a special groundwater management fund paid for by the Graton Rancheria.

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. If it doesn’t join, the $19,977 it was supposed to kick in either will be covered by seeking additional funding sources such as the state Department of Water Resources, or the groundwater sustainability agency will cut costs to make up for the budget hole, said Lynda Hopkins, chairwoman of the agency and a county supervisor.

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.

As the fees stand now, large groundwater users like vineyards will pay the $19.90 per acre-foot. Urban well users will pay $1.99 a year, while rural residential landowners will be charged $9.95 annually 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.

Hopkins 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 collect data from rural users to determine how much water is used at each individual rural property with an eye towards reassessing estimates of how much rural residents should be charged for their water use.

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

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