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Sonoma County proposes rule changes for well permits

Goal of new rules is to protect health of local waterways

In response to evolving California case law that requires local governments to protect the health of rivers and other “public trust resources,” the Board of Supervisors will consider new standards for permit applications to drill wells in Sonoma County, according to a press release from Bradley Dunn, Permit Sonoma’s policy manager.

The Aug. 9 board meeting will include a public hearing on the proposed amendment to the county’s well ordinance.

The amendment would create a new framework that allows Permit Sonoma to evaluate environmental impacts while reviewing applications for permits to drill new or replacement groundwater wells.

To comply with a 2018 decision by the California Court of Appeal, the county will evaluate and require mitigation of impacts of well permits on public trust resources in “navigable waterways,” such as the Russian River, along with impacts on the habitat and wildlife the waterways support, including the endangered coho salmon.

“Recent court decisions have altered the way counties must regulate permits for new water wells,” said James Gore, chair of the Board of Supervisors. “The law is now clear: The county must consider adverse impacts to public trust resources when permitting water wells. As a result, we must adopt new standards for well permits to ensure they do not harm resources that belong to everyone, including future generations.”

Under the proposed ordinance, applicants may be required to submit additional supporting information regarding impacts, depending on the location and use of the proposed well. Some applications for replacement wells and small domestic wells will need to supply little additional information, while applications for higher-production wells could require substantial supporting studies, potentially including a water supply and use assessment, a hydrogeologic report, and detailed descriptions of mitigating measures to reduce the amount of water extracted from the ground.

Applicants would be able to appeal a decision to the Board of Supervisors. Permit Sonoma could also ask the Board of Supervisors to approve permits for wells that benefit the health, safety, or welfare of the community.

The ordinance would also require installation of meters on all new wells permitted after Jan. 1, 2023. The data from meters will help the county track, analyze, and model groundwater use across watersheds. The ordinance would also create a new fee to evaluate applications subject to public trust review, proposed at $1,392.

Replacement wells that serve existing legal domestic uses on a property would be exempt from public trust review, as long as the wells are metered and extract a maximum of 2 acre-feet of water annually, or about 650,000 gallons. An average domestic household uses roughly half an acre-foot of water in a year.

Permit Sonoma, also known as the county Permit and Resource Management Department, receives roughly 300 water well permit applications annually. The department estimates approximately a third of those applications will require a public trust review.

Under California’s public trust doctrine, the state and counties must hold certain natural resources in trust for the benefit of current and future generations. In 2018, the California Court of Appeal ruled that public trust doctrine applies to permitting groundwater wells that could adversely impact navigable waterways, defined as rivers and streams that can be navigated in a small boat. While groundwater itself is not a public trust resource, extraction of groundwater that reduces surface stream flows can adversely impact public trust resources in navigable waterways. The case, Environmental Law Foundation v. State Water Resources Control Board, focused on the permit process in Siskiyou County, but the court’s decision set a precedent that applies to all counties in California.

California Coastkeeper Alliance filed a lawsuit against the County of Sonoma in July 2021 to force the county to comply with the public trust doctrine when issuing well permits. The litigation has not concluded.

The proposed ordinance can be viewed at Permit Sonoma’s webpage for Items of Significant Interest. Comments can be emailed to Permit Sonoma at [email protected]

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