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Sonoma County explores fees to pay for new groundwater management plan

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This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

Thousands of Sonoma County residents who rely on groundwater will likely see new fees on their property tax bill next fall, helping pay for a legally required groundwater regulatory plan.

Local agencies governing groundwater resources were created in 2017 following the passage of a landmark California law intended to safeguard the previously unregulated water supply. Those new agencies in the Santa Rosa Plain, the Sonoma Valley and the Petaluma Valley were given until 2022 to craft plans that take stock of the amount of groundwater in each basin and establish measures ensuring sustainability for the next 20 years.

The agencies have each received $1 million in state grant funding, but officials say more money is needed to complete the framework. The groundwater agency in the Santa Rosa Plain has opted to levy fees on users to bridge its $1 million gap, while the Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley agencies will pay their own respective costs, said Ann DuBay, a Sonoma County Water Agency spokeswoman.

The board of directors of the Santa Rosa Plain agency held a study session Thursday to hone in on fees and ways to create a program to register wells in the basin. It covers 78,720 acres from Rohnert Park and Cotati north to Windsor, including Santa Rosa and the east edge of Sebastopol.

Potential fees, which vary by type of use, would be levied on cities, water districts, farmers, businesses and residents with wells over the course of three years. About 13,000 parcels could be impacted by new fees, DuBay said.

Opportunities for grant money have been exhausted, and the agency chose not to pursue a parcel tax measure, leaving fees as the most viable funding option, DuBay said.

“There was a widespread desire to try to spread the costs as widely as possible and not have the (fee) impacts be significantly large,” said Jay Jasperse, chief engineer and groundwater manager for the Sonoma County Water Agency.

Under the proposed structure, a rural residential user could expect to pay between $8 and $11 annually. The owners of a 10-acre vineyard could pay between $97 and $130 a year, while fees could range from $975 to $1,300 annually for a 100-acre vineyard.

Cities, towns and golf courses could pay $16 to $22 an acre-foot of water, or about 326,000 gallons. For Santa Rosa, those fees could to be $25,945 and $34,594 a year.

Those fees, which are expected to be refined and approved by April, are calculated based on estimated and actual usage, Jasperse said. Final recommended fees likely will fall in the middle of the ranges presented Thursday, he said.

The agency also is developing a system for registering wells, with guidelines expected to be approved by April, Jasperse said. It will hold public meetings and conduct outreach about the proposed fees and well registration system, DuBay said.

Chairwoman Lynda Hopkins, a Sonoma County supervisor, asked for more outreach to small farmers.

“We still have some details to work out when it comes to charging fees,” said Hopkins, an organic farmer. “I certainly have interest in the county of Sonoma helping to create a financial hardship fund for any farmers who may by unduly impacted by the impact fees … what I’m excited to pursue is how can we make sure we fund this agency but not put small farms out of business.”

Once the groundwater management plan is complete, additional fees may be necessary to fund its implementation, Jasperse said.

“Obviously we’re going to continue to be active and opportunistic in pursuing and obtaining grants as they exist, but we anticipate a second fee study will be needed,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Hannah Beausang at 707-521-5214 or hannah.beausang@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @hannahbeausang.

This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com.

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