Will Sonoma’s New Groundwater Ordinance Protect Salmon?

May 9th, 2023

On April 18, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a revised groundwater well construction and drilling ordinance that aims to protect local streams and creeks from drying up and taking the fish and wildlife with them. The revised ordinance comes in response to a 2021 lawsuit filed by California Coastkeeper Alliance to compel the County to fulfill its obligations under the Public Trust Doctrine to ensure that groundwater extraction does not harm the salmon, steelhead, and other public trust resources of the Russian River watershed. While the County means well, there is no certainty that the ordinance will improve conditions for the imperiled salmon and steelhead, or improve the County’s overall water security.

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. All of these problems were exacerbated by inadequately regulated well drilling and groundwater pumping around the County. 

Unfortunately, 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. The main flaw is 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.

This is not to say the new ordinance does not have some merit: it calls for implementation of water conservation measures by new groundwater pumpers; requires water conservation measures by existing pumpers in the event they need obtain a permit to restore existing production with a new well; and identifies areas in the County – referred to as the Public Trust Review Area – where these conservation measures are needed because of the impact groundwater pumping has on streamflow and the fish, wildlife, and recreation dependent on this streamflow. It is possible that the conservation measures required under the well ordinance may cause existing users to use less, but remember, the ordinance does not require any reduction in use.

Under the Public Trust Doctrine, 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. California law, including the Public Trust Doctrine and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), 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.

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, 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.

We initiated the lawsuit in 2021 to require meaningful consideration and mitigation of the impacts of groundwater extraction on the public trust resources of Sonoma County. We made some progress, but there is much more to be done, and we’re working hard to determine how to make it happen.

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: Drought & Water Conservation, Enforcement, Flows for Fish, Happening Now