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Sonoma County unveils first-ever proposed well water fees under pioneering California groundwater law

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In a dramatic shift from California’s history of allowing landowners to freely pump and consume water from their own wells, Sonoma County’s rural residents and many others will soon begin paying for the water drawn from beneath their feet.

In the sprawling 81,284-acre Santa Rosa Plain groundwater basin, the proposed regulatory fee for a rural resident is $18 to $25 a year, much lower than the rates in the more sparsely populated Petaluma and Sonoma valleys.

In the 44,846-acre Sonoma Valley basin, the fee would be $48 to $80 a year, and in the 46,661-acre Petaluma Valley basin, it would be $115 to $200 a year.

The residential fees are based on an assumption that rural residents typically pump a half-acre foot of well water a year. Most homes do not have water meters and none will be installed under the fee program.

Large groundwater water users — including ranches, cities, water districts and businesses — would pay fees based on the volume of water drawn from their wells.

Fees in the Santa Rosa basin would be $35 to $50 per acre foot, in Sonoma Valley $95 to $160 per acre foot and in Petaluma Valley $230 to $400 per acre foot.

The proposed fees, unveiled in a series of public Zoom meetings last month, stem from a state law mandating payments to support locally tailored plans to sustain groundwater resources for the next 50 years, including a 20-year drought.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 required 94 of California’s 515 groundwater basins to form agencies to implement the plans.

Those basins, combined with areas that have already established groundwater oversight, account for 98% — 20 million acre feet — of pumped water within the state’s groundwater basins, according to the Department of Water Resources.

Sonoma County’s groundwater sustainability agency governing boards — appointed by agency members, including cities, towns, water and conservation districts, county supervisors and the county water agency — will consider various fee proposals at their meetings this month.

The three boards must adopt funding plans in June and if any regulatory fees are approved they would most likely be included in the fall property tax bills, said Ann DuBay, a Sonoma Water manager who is administrator of the Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agencies.

Should any basin decline to set groundwater fees, the state would impose a flat fee of $40 per acre foot. An acre foot of water is enough to supply about 2.3 households for one year.

Sustainability involves monitoring of groundwater conditions to “ensure clean and plentiful groundwater for future users … while allowing for reasonable and managed growth,” DuBay said.

“We have to close the (groundwater) data gap and fix all the problems,” she said. “It starts to add up to some significant dollars in each basin.”

The operating cost of the Santa Rosa and Petaluma agencies is about $1.1 million a year and the Sonoma Valley agency, already faced with declining groundwater, costs about $1.2 million — not including any capital costs.

The wide range of proposed fees for rural residents and large water users is due to the number of well owners in each basin, with 9,000 well parcels in the Santa Rosa basin, 1,250 in the Petaluma Valley and 3,000 in Sonoma Valley.

A well parcel is property assumed to be using groundwater because it has no other water source or may be receiving water from another source, such as a city, but is known to have a well.

In each basin, the lower fee assumes grants will cover 40% of the costs and the higher figure applies if no grant funds are available.

Each basin has received more than $2 million in grants to cover work from 2017 to this year. “That’s been great,” DuBay said.

Since 2017, existing local agencies have been paying the sustainability program costs that must now be covered by the three groundwater basin agencies.

The proposed regulatory fees are one of several revenue options, including well head fees (a flat fee per well), parcel taxes that would require two-thirds voter approval and benefit assessment districts, which also require voter approval.

It’s not your groundwater, it’s our groundwater. We’re all drinking out of the same milkshake. — David Noren, member of the Santa Rosa Groundwater Sustainability Agency Advisory Board

David Noren, a Sebastopol area resident and member of the Santa Rosa Groundwater Sustainability Agency Advisory Board, considers the proposed fees entirely reasonable.

“We’re talking about a shared common resource,” he said. “It’s not your groundwater, it’s our groundwater. We’re all drinking out of the same milkshake.”

Given the impacts of climate change, Noren said “it is incumbent on us to collectively manage our resources.”

The sustainability program is “not meant to be punitive at all,” he said, noting that “nobody’s going to come out and put a meter on your well.”

Each basin agency has assessed groundwater conditions and identified the projects and actions needed to ensure it is sustainable by 2042 and can maintain that status to at least 2072.

An environmental professional who works for a Santa Rosa engineering firm, Noren represents rural residents on the advisory board.

He finds negative and often inaccurate comments about the groundwater sustainability program on the Nextdoor social media platform disturbing.

“A lot of people get on there to rant and rave,” Noren said.

Rural residents, who install and maintain their own wells, should not have to pay for the sustainability program, County Supervisor David Rabbitt said.

“It is another unfunded state mandate,” said Rabbitt, chairman of the Petaluma Valley agency board and member of the Sonoma Valley agency board. “There’s been an awful lot of pushback.”

Rabbitt has proposed three funding options for the county’s 2022-23 budget, including one for $622,728 to offset the fees paid by residents in all three basins.

He also questioned the fees applied to farm operators, saying “if you want to kill agriculture this is a great way to do it.”

Lindsey Strain sought a seat on the Petaluma Valley Groundwater Agency Advisory Committee because she figured, at age 28, she would be the only member using groundwater in 50 years.

It is another unfunded state mandate. There’s been an awful lot of pushback — David Rabbitt, chairman of the Petaluma Valley agency board

The Petaluma basin’s aquifer is currently stable, but conditions could be altered by population growth and climate change, she said. Some Petaluma area wells have gone dry during the ongoing drought, and salt water intrusion from San Pablo Bay and the Petaluma River is a concern.

“The prospect of groundwater being used up is more likely if it is not regulated,” Strain said, but that doesn’t make the unprecedented regulation popular.

“People get very feisty when you tell them you’re going to charge them for it,” she said.

Regulatory fees are the “best bet” for funding until parcel taxes can be approved, Strain said.

The Sonoma County Farm Bureau has concerns about the economic impact of the proposed regulatory fees, said Tawny Tesconi, executive director of the organization with 1,500 members directly involved in agriculture.

Noting that Petaluma basin ranchers would pay six to seven times more than those in the Santa Rosa basin, Tesconi said “we never want to pit one industry against another.”

Sonoma Valley basin ranchers would pay about three times more than those in Santa Rosa.

Many farmers cannot boost the price for their product so any added cost can become “one more straw in the camel’s back,” she said.

For dairy operators, milk prices are set by the federal government, while grape growers have more leeway on pricing than other farmers, Tesconi said.

Livestock, produce and flower producers are also at a disadvantage because they use more water than vineyard operators, she said.

Tesconi raised another cost issue, applauding officials at Sonoma Water, the county’s water agency, for an “amazing job” in managing the groundwater sustainability program but also questioning whether a nonprofit agency could have done the work at less expense.

Her major concern, however, is insufficient public conversation over such a dramatic step as groundwater regulation.

“I think there needs to be more community input,” Tesconi said.

For example, she suggested that since property taxpayers throughout the county are paying for Warm Springs Dam, the massive surface water project completed in 1983, “why can’t we all pay for groundwater?”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

North Bay Q&A

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