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Sonoma County announces new revisions to draft well permit ordinance

Permit Sonoma today announced revisions to a proposal the Board of Supervisors will consider on Tuesday, Oct. 4, that seeks to enact new standards for drilling wells in Sonoma County.

Under the most recent changes, the proposed ordinance further defines which wells would be required to undergo a public trust review, adds new avenues for wells to be permitted ministerially and also includes specific requirements for well monitoring and water conservation.

The area where public trust review would be required is referred to as the Public Trust Review Area and includes areas where the underlying aquifer is likely to be interconnected to streams and navigable waters. The Public Trust Review Area includes areas mapped as subterranean streams or potential stream depletion areas for the state in 2010, critical watershed areas, and priority basins. Wells outside the area would be exempt from a public trust review. The draft ordinance provides an exemption from the discretionary public trust review for the following classes of wells:

Replacement water wells for domestic purposes where usage is limited to two acre feet per year.

Water wells where usage is limited to two acre feet per year, and where the applicant implements water conservation requirements detailed in the ordinance.

Water wells for existing land uses where usage is limited to the amount of groundwater used at the date of the ordinance passage, and water conservation requirements are implemented.

An average domestic household uses roughly a half-acre-foot of water in a year.

A public informational webinar is scheduled for Sept. 22, details below. The public is encouraged to comment on the proposed amendment to the county’s well ordinance by emailing Permit Sonoma at until Oct. 3. The public is also invited to participate in the Public Hearing on Oct. 4 at the Board of Supervisors Chambers at 575 Administration Boulevard in Santa Rosa.

If approved by the Board of Supervisors, the amended ordinance would create a new framework for Permit Sonoma to evaluate environmental impacts while reviewing applications for permits to drill new or replacement groundwater wells.

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 state 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.

Under the proposed ordinance, which was first announced on July 11, Permit Sonoma would be required to evaluate potential adverse impacts to public trust resources in navigable waterways before approving a permit for a new well. Applicants may be required to submit additional supporting information 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 require the installation of meters on non-domestic wells permitted after ordinance passage, a step that would help the county track, analyze and model groundwater use across watersheds. Domestic wells that extract less than two acre-feet of water annually would be exempt from the metering requirement.

Permit Sonoma receives roughly 300 water well permit applications annually. The department estimates a small fraction would require a public trust review. The ordinance would create a new fee to evaluate applications subject to public trust review, proposed at $1,392.

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.

Permit Sonoma is set to host an informational webinar town hall on Sept. 22 on the topic of the upcoming Well Ordinance Update which will be going before the Board of Supervisors on Oct. 4.

The webinar will feature a presentation from experts on the proposed changes to the ordinance followed by an opportunity for questions and answers from the public.

How to join

Date: Sept. 22, 2022

Time: 4 - 5 p.m.

Zoom link

Languages: English with Spanish interpretation on Zoom.

The meeting will be streamed on the county’s Facebook Page in English and on its YouTube channel in Spanish. A recording of the webinar will be made available on the YouTube channel after the event.

The proposed ordinance can be viewed at Permit Sonoma’s webpage for Items of Significant Interest. Comments can be emailed to Permit Sonoma at The public is also invited to participate in the Public Hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 4.

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