Story Corps
Legal linkage of surface and groundwater has led to legal challenge
photo credit: California Department of Water Resources
A revised county plan, adding additional reviews, water meters and other restrictions on new water wells in unincorporated Sonoma County...isn't enough to stave off a looming lawsuit. The suit accuses local officials of hurting protected species by pulling too much water from local watersheds.  
After the environmental group California Coastkeeper Alliance signaled they would not drop their lawsuit, county staffers moved quickly to revise proposed changes to the county's well ordinance. While officials are set to debate the provisions Tuesday, the organization has already reached a verdict. 
Drev Hunt is legal director of the Coastkeeper Alliance.
"The county's proposal to adopt this ordinance is a partial solution, but it doesn't go far enough." 
Coastkeeper's suit follows a 2018 appellate ruling which found some aquifers are interconnected with rivers and streams, and as such, deserve similar protections to those provided to navigable rivers under federal and state statute. 
Daniel Cooper is an attorney at Sycamore Law, which is suing the county. He said the litigation's goal isn't to upend rural life, but to assure it can continue without further harm to salmon, steelhead and other endangered species.
"We're not proposing drastic changes to people's lifestyles or that everyone has to have a low-flow showerhead, but there does need to be a holistic analysis of what the county's doing and do it. And, that's not what the ordinance proposes, the ordinance, it mouths the right words without actually setting up a mechanism or actually addressing the issue."
The issue, Cooper said, is draining the Russian River basin, including tributaries of approving all manner of residential, commercial and agricultural wells without data collection, analysis or attempts to blunt or mitigate the cumulative impacts.
"There have been salmon observed gasping on the surface in isolated pools where the temperature and dissolved oxygen level have gone up and down respectively such that it's killing fish. They are suffocating because they can't breathe in those pools."
Cooper said local officials are well aware of the problem.
"The county and the Santa Rosa Plain Groundwater Sustainability Agency have looked at and modeled the relationship between pumping and instream flows. And have quantified that relationship and shown that there is a direct link between pumping and de-watering."
A public records request filed by KRCB News found the county had received nearly 3,300 permit applications since 2016.
"The first step is to actually get your hands around where we're at. How much water's being pumped? And the current status of the aquifer and what in-stream flow will protect the fish. Once we kind of have those levers, then there's public policy questions the county can undertake about priorities. Is it ag can continue to take all it wants? Or are there other places, people's domestic wells and so on that should be getting priority, a re-jiggering of the allocation. But in order to do that, make that fair public policy analysis with the public involved and helping make choices, you gotta know what you got and the county has no idea. Nobody has gauging on their wells, and they are only proposing gauging on new wells starting in January and, at least related to the ordinance there's no modeling, there's no nothing to support the analysis they say that needs to be done. The first step is to figure out what's going on," Cooper said. 
That rejiggering Cooper referred to might prove hard to pull off, considering California's system of water rights. Nevertheless, under federal and state law, navigable rivers and streams are protected.
County officials are scheduled to make decisions on proposed revisions to the county well ordinance during this week's board of supervisors meeting.
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