Challenging the County of Sonoma to Protect Public Trust Resources

June 28th, 2023

Last month, we told you about the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approval of a revised groundwater well construction and drilling ordinance intended to protect local streams and creeks, and promised we’d be back to tell you how we are working to make sure the ordinance will live up to its promise. After careful consideration, we concluded that the adopted ordinance will not guarantee any improvement in ecological health of Sonoma County waters, nor will it improve water security for Sonoma County residents. So, along with Russian Riverkeeper, we filed suit alleging the County’s adoption of the ordinance violated its duties under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Public Trust Doctrine.

The County’s ordinance is a missed opportunity to develop a proactive policy that demands quantifiable reductions in existing use and ensure Sonoma County residents and businesses live within their collective means. During the well ordinance development process, Russian Riverkeeper and California Coastkeeper Alliance urged the County address the flaws identified. We asked the County to put an interim ordinance in place while it developed a lasting an effective permitting approach to bring groundwater use in the County to levels that promote long-term sustainable water supply and protection of everyone’s interest in healthy, flowing streams and rivers that support fishing and recreational opportunities for all.

Conceptually the revised ordinance is not all bad – it calls for implementation of water conservation measures by new groundwater pumpers and asks pumpers that need to redrill an existing well to come up with a plan to conserve water. However, the ordinance does not squarely address the fundamental issue – groundwater is not unlimited. The ordinance does not require any reduction in existing use and provides a streamlined, ministerial permitting path authorizing new groundwater extraction in areas already suffering from over-pumping. Far from solving the problem, the County’s ordinance authorizes continuation of existing pumping by all current users plus new groundwater extraction in the County’s most ecologically sensitive areas. This is not a recipe for long-term success.

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, as well as CEQA, the County is required to consider the impacts of groundwater extraction on public trust resources and mitigate those impacts to the extent feasible. Unfortunately, the County has not determined or analyzed whether its requirements will in fact mitigate the acknowledged, significant impacts of groundwater pumping on public trust resources. Even worse, the County did not evaluate or consider any alternative mitigation strategies, or whether the chosen conservation measures reflect all that is feasible. The law demands that environmental impacts of government decisions be evaluated and that those impacts are mitigated where feasible. It also requires the government to support its decisions regarding the feasibility of alternatives with facts and analysis, not assumptions and speculation. Neither the County’s actions nor the ordinance itself meets these standards.

As alleged in our newly-filed lawsuit, the flaws in the ordinance stem from the fact that the County did not do the analysis necessary to address cumulative impacts of historical and future groundwater extraction. Nor did it analyze and explain how the conservation measures proposed will in fact result in groundwater extraction and use at sustainable levels that avoid or minimize harm to our shared natural resources. Without this analysis, the revised ordinance is premised on hopes and speculation. The significant flaws in the process and the analysis ensures continuation of the status quo.

During two years of severe drought in 2020 and 2021, Sonoma County saw the impact of unregulated groundwater pumping on water users and the environment. Streams were pumped dry by neighboring wells during the drought’s summer months, killing juvenile salmon. Summers also brought growing warnings of algae blooms that can kill pets and harm children. Meanwhile, some water users saw their wells go dry – and the State Water Board ordered hundreds of others to stop pumping from the Russian River.

The revised ordinance came in response to a 2021 lawsuit filed by California Coastkeeper Alliance to compel the County to fulfill its obligations under the Public Trust Doctrine. The County’s new well ordinance will not ensure the history of dry streams, fish kills, algal blooms, and dry wells doesn’t repeat itself. Our lawsuit aims to ensure the County take the steps necessary to ensure that it does.

Stay informed about our efforts to protect California’s waters by subscribing to California Coastkeeper Alliance’s monthly newsletter, becoming a lifetime member, or following us on social media: @CA_Waterkeepers.

Categories: Climate Change Impacts to Rivers, Drought & Water Conservation, Enforcement, Flows for Fish, Happening Now, Waterkeepers at Work