Groundwater board backs off plan to charge fees for well water

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Facing a wave of opposition over proposed fees for using well water, the directors of a little-known public agency backed away from a decision Thursday and agreed to consider an alternative plan that would exempt rural residents and cost other groundwater users far less overall.

Irate residents blistered the Santa Rosa Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s board of directors with complaints over the inequity and underlying principle of the plan to make residents, ranchers, businesses, towns and cities pay — for the first time — for water pumped out of the ground.

“I don’t believe the process is fair,” said Michael Hilber of Santa Rosa. The cost of the state-mandated groundwater management program, he said, was being “shifted away from industrial wine interests” and inflated for homeowners.

Orlean Koehle of Santa Rosa said the proposed fees were “ridiculous” in the wake of heavy rains and also violated the common law principle that “a well goes with a property owner (rights).”

Justin Morse complained the fees could double repeatedly in the future and with no “guarantee the funds get spent on groundwater.”

Pat Mitchell said the new regulations amounted to “more agencies with people that have to be paid for their time.”

In response, board Chairwoman Lynda Hopkins and Director Shirlee Zane, both county supervisors, introduced a “Plan B.”

The new proposal would exempt an estimated 7,300 rural well owners in the Santa Rosa Plain from all fees and include financial contributions from both the county and Sonoma Water, the agency that delivers water to 600,000 Sonoma and Mendocino county residents.

The alternative plan, to be presented in detail at the board’s next meeting in June, would also dispense with a proposed well registration program.

Residents in the audience of about 70 people at the Santa Rosa Water Office complained bitterly that the fees would be included on their property tax bills, presumably meaning they would be declared delinquent if they did not pay the fee.

“We have had a lot of public pushback,” Zane said. “I know the members of the public hate it,” she said, referring to the original proposal. “I get that.”

In an interview, Hopkins said she and Zane had convinced their supervisorial colleagues on Wednesday to contribute up to $200,000 toward the cost of the groundwater sustainability program on the grounds that it was for “the common good.”

Sonoma Water would contribute an unspecified amount of funding, Hopkins said, with the combined revenue covering rural residents’ share of the program. Resource conservation districts might kick in funding, as well, she said.

The proposed well water fees are intended to cover the groundwater agency’s $337,000 annual operating costs for the next three years.

Fees for all other well water users — including cities, towns, mutual water companies, wineries, farms, businesses, schools and golf courses — would be reduced under the alternative plan, Hopkins said.

The county funding will “make it cheaper for everybody,” she said.

But once the agency’s three-year planning process is over and a groundwater management plan is put in place, the fees will be increased, she said, and the well registration program instituted.

Fees cannot be assessed on rural residents without well registration, Hopkins said.

The plan scheduled for approval Thursday would have assessed rural residents who depend solely on well water $8 to $13 a year — probably $10, said Andy Rodgers, the agency’s administrator.

The agency estimates that rural residents consume about one-fourth of the groundwater pumped from the Santa Rosa Plain.

Larger users would have paid $16 to $26 per acre-foot (325,851 gallons).

Large water users without meters, primarily farmers, would pay a fee calculated by multiplying the number of irrigated acres by the estimated annual water use for specific crop types.

The Santa Rosa Plain is generally the valley floor from Cotati to Windsor and from the foot of Sonoma Mountain to Sebastopol.

Some of the agency’s harshest critics expressed satisfaction with the alternative plan.

“I thank you for looking at Plan B to bring relief, I hope, for rural residents,” Douglas Emery said.

Hilber said the fees should have exempted rural residents from the start.

“You made it more complicated than it should have been,” he said.

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