Environmental nonprofits sue Sonoma County over groundwater well regulations

California Coastkeeper Alliance and Russian River Keeper say the county’s new well ordinance does not sufficiently protect the county's waterways from depletion.|

Two environmental groups are suing Sonoma County over new regulations governing groundwater wells.

California Coastkeeper Alliance and Russian River Keeper, both nonprofits, say the county’s new well ordinance does not sufficiently protect waterways from depletion. The groups filed the suit Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court.

“It really does not reduce existing pumping and for any new wells there is no assurances that groundwater pumping and the stream flows will come into balance,” said Sean Bothwell, executive director for California Coastkeeper Alliance.

The suit reopens a debate over how the county should regulate new wells and limit their impact on the region’s major rivers and feeder streams.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to approve the new ordinance in April.

Under the regulations, certain high-volume users must comply with new monitoring requirements and, in some cases, pass a closer study of potential environmental impacts. Those users will also pay thousands of dollars more in application fees — up to eight times the existing rate — for an over-the-counter well review.

“The County believes the ordinance is protective of public trust resources and that it was adopted in conformance with the Public Trust Doctrine and California Environmental Quality Act,” Chief Deputy County Counsel Jennifer Klein said in an email.

Klein said the county had not been served with the suit as of Friday afternoon.

California’s Public Trust Doctrine requires local jurisdictions protect certain waterways for public uses, including commerce, recreation, navigation and habitat.

In Sonoma County, those waterways — rivers and their tributaries — include the Russian River, Petaluma River and Sonoma Creek.

The California Coastkeeper Alliance filed suit in 2021 arguing the county had failed to comply with a state policy. That suit — settled in December 2022 — launched the six-month process that produced the recently approved well ordinance.

Bothwell and Don McEnhill, Russian Riverkeeper’s executive director, say the county’s process needs a more in-depth analysis of the impacts of groundwater pumping.

“We need to collect more data on how much water people are using,” said McEnhill. “What it’s going to do is tell us where are we now, if we have problems today and if so, how much can the system bear without breaking.”

Their concerns reflect those raised by residents, environmental advocates and experts when the board approved the new ordinance. Some called the county’s regulations vague in how they would effectively track and mitigate groundwater overdrafts and questioned how the county determined how much water-use required more stringent review.

Wells exempt from the more stringent process include those using no more than two acre feet of water annually and those outside of the designated Public Trust Review Area, which covers more than 300 square miles throughout the county. (An acre foot is 326,000 gallons, or about the amount of water used by up to two average California households in a year.)

About half of the wells permitted by the county over a five-year period since 2017 would have been subject to the tougher rules had they been in place. More than 40,000 wells are estimated to exist countywide, according to the county’s permitting department.

Bothwell said the alliance hoped the county would use the current ordinance as a placeholder while it further studies the issue.

Russian River Keeper joined the lawsuit to provide a strong local voice, McEnhill said. He added the nonprofit felt the suit was the only option to ensure the county more closely researched the impacts.

“The fish are the first ones to be impacted,” said McEnhill. “It is existing well owners who are next in line to be impacted, and we did see many wells go dry in 2020 and 2021.”

Klein said the county used “a good-faith effort” to create updated regulations.

“The County is also committed to reviewing implementation and effectiveness of the ordinance on a regular basis,” Klein said in the email. “We believe those are steps in the right direction and legally compliant.”

You can reach Staff Writer Emma Murphy at 707-521-5228 or emma.murphy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MurphReports.

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