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Board of Supervisors adopts well drilling moratorium

New well drilling prohibited until April next year

By Melissa Dowling

On Oct. 4, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a moratorium for drilling wells until April 4, 2023 in Sonoma County to allow county staff more time to develop recommendations for updating the county’s well ordinance. The board also directed Permit Sonoma, Sonoma County’s natural resources and permitting agency, to establish a Technical Advisory Committee to make recommendations for implementing Public Trust Review requirements.

According to a press release published by Permit Sonoma, the county is updating its well ordinance in response to evolving California case law that requires local governments to protect the health of rivers and other public trust resources. 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 the habitat and wildlife they support, including the endangered Coho salmon.

The Technical Advisory Committee will be composed of technical experts chartered to advise the Director of Permit Sonoma. The moratorium would provide the Technical Advisory Committee time to convene and advise staff in developing recommendations for applying the Public Trust Doctrine to Sonoma County well permitting.

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 state Court of Appeal ruled that Public Trust Doctrine applies to the permitting of groundwater wells that 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 Public Trust Doctrine when issuing well permits. The litigation has not concluded.