Lawsuit urges tighter regulation of well drilling

By Carol Benfell, Special to SoCoNews, , October 4, 2021

The Russian River near Healdsburg (Photo Grace Carroll)

A Sacramento-based environmental group is suing to stop well drilling in the Russian River watershed until Sonoma County determines if the wells will steal underground water flows from the Russian River or its tributaries.

The lawsuit brought by California Coastkeeper says the county is failing its “public trust” duty to preserve and protect the Russian River for the common good. It asks the court to order a ban on the drilling until the county adopts the appropriate regulations.

“The county has to get squared away on how to keep water flowing in the Russian River,” said Drevet Hunt, an attorney for California Coastkeeper.

The county is taking the issue seriously, said Daniel Virkstis, a county spokesperson.

“The county is taking a hard look at the issues raised in Coastkeeper’s suit and knows they are of significant concern to the community and land owners,” Virkstis said.

There are more than 40,000 rural wells in Sonoma County. About 400 were drilled in the past two years alone, with no examination of their impact on the Russian River watershed, according to county records.

“Over-pumping groundwater has had and continues to cause significant harmful effects on the flow of the Russian River and its tributaries,” said Sean Bothwell, executive director of California Coastkeeper.

“The current drought only makes this problem worse, and restricting surface diversions alone merely drives more groundwater pumping,” Bothwell said

A moratorium on well drilling would not affect existing wells, and homeowners would almost certainly be exempted from any well drilling moratorium, Hunt said.

It also would have little effect on grape growers because most wine grapes grown here can survive on low water, said Mike Martini, owner of Sebastopol’s Taft Street Winery, and head of an alliance of 20 family farms.

Wine grapes, the county’s predominant agricultural crop, cover some 60,000 acres and provided $13.4 billion to the county economy in 2017, the most recent figure available.

“If the lawsuit prevails, if it doesn’t affect existing wells, the impact is minimal,” Martini said. “The question will be, what happens if you have a failed well. Will this lawsuit allow you to fix or replace it?”

New cannabis growers in the Russian River watershed would, however, be affected by a moratorium if the lawsuit prevails, said Erich Pearson, founder and CEO of SPARC, a cannabis company.

He pointed out that cannabis is the only crop required to have multiple meters on groundwater use, and required to give easements so the county can read the meters.

“I’m a believer that county supervisors should do more to regulate ground water usage. They haven’t done enough,” Pearson said. “Everybody has a straw in the ground with no accountability.”

The degradation of river habitat, including low, warm water flows in summer, is one of the primary factors limiting coho salmon production, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Even in wet years, sections of creeks and streams supplying the Russian River can dry in summer, leaving salmon and steelhead trapped in isolated pools. The pools can dry up completely or become too stagnant and warm for fish to survive, said Gregg Horton, principal environmental specialist at Sonoma County Water Agency, which performs fish monitoring.

Drought years are even harder on the fish.

“Based on 19 streams surveyed in 2015, which was also a drought year, an average of 60% of the juvenile coho salmon and steelhead observed in early summer were in reaches that by late summer or early fall had gone dry,” Horton said.

The Warm Springs Fish Hatchery raises and releases around 180,000 young coho into the Russian River every year, but only about 300 to 500 a year survive and return to the Russian River to spawn.

Coho would have to return in numbers exceeding 10,000 a year for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to consider them sustainable and no longer endangered.

The county is already studying groundwater issues, and is just finishing its proposal for groundwater management in response to the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014.

A draft report, available to the public on Oct. 1, sets out recommendations for addressing issues in three groundwater basins — the Santa Rosa Plain, Sonoma Valley and Petaluma Valley.

The report includes a proposal to study the effect of groundwater withdrawals on creeks and streams in the part of the Russian River watershed that lies within the three basins. The effect on the Russian River itself won’t be studied, because it isn’t in any of the three basins.

The report goes to the state on Jan. 1.