LAWSUIT: Well Ordinance Favoring Wine Water Grab Coming To An End?

Public Trust – groundwater lawsuit update & request

Editorial Comment: As homeowners wells and local creeks dried up during the drought, wine industry kept drilling and County kept approving new wells….consider supporting Russian River Keeper and California Coastkeeper Alliance.

You will remember the lawsuit that was settled last year between Sonoma County and California Coastkeeper Alliance (CCKA) – resulting in the County undertaking a new Well Ordinance to address the issues raised in the suit.

Since adoption of the revised Well Ordinance by the Board of Supervisors, time and expertise has been intense reviewing the new Ordinance.  After serious consideration, Russian Riverkeeper (RRK) and California Coastkeeper Alliance filed a second lawsuit in Superior Court “to prevent Sonoma County from issuing new well permits until the County complies with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and changes its groundwater well construction and drilling ordinance to protect public trust resources of the Russian River, its tributaries, and the endangered Coho salmon and other wildlife that rely upon the watershed.  The lawsuit seeks to ensure that recommendations from our resource agencies (i.e., National Marine Fisheries Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife) and ecological experts are made part of this ordinance.”  

The lawsuit is a second effort to compel the County to fulfill its Public Trust obligations.  
Costs for this phase are estimated to be up to $40,000 (including paying outside attorneys a capped fee totaling $30,000).  Outside counsel are Carstens, Black and Minteer (CEQA experts), and Sycamore Law (the same firm that successfully represented CCKA in the first lawsuit against the County in 2022). 
$40k is to cover costs and pay attorneys an NGO-specific discounted rate that is approximately 1/8 of the market rate they charge. The attorneys will bill at the discounted rate until they reach the capped amount, after which they will work on contingency and seek to recover their full fees at market rates when the case is won.
A similar arrangement, and ultimate recovery, is what happened in the previous lawsuit.
$10,000 is a conservative estimate of costs associated with preparing the record (obtaining transcripts of hearings, producing hard copies of multi-thousand page record, filing fees, service fees, travel to attend hearings and settlement meetings, etc.)  It may be less or slightly more depending on the size of the record.  This estimate is based on other cases.
These costs do not include funding necessary for CCKA legal director and RRK staff attorneys who will also work on the case.  
Sonoma County is the first county in the State of California to take any action to address its Public Trust obligations when authorizing groundwater extraction.  There are numerous Counties along California’s coast with significant rural and agricultural areas dependent on groundwater as well as endangered and threatened salmon, steelhead, frogs, and riparian habitats similar to Sonoma County (think west Marin, San Mateo coast, the Napa Valley, and large portions of Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura counties).  Ground water extraction throughout the Central Valley impairs streamflow and harms public trust resources throughout the region.  County governments in each of these places will need to adjust their practices to come into compliance with the Public Trust Doctrine.  This lawsuit is intended to ensure that Sonoma County’s precedent setting action relies on sound evaluation of impacts of groundwater extraction, and feasibility of mitigation measures based on empirical information and reasoned analysis, not arbitrary estimates and good intentions.   
We will all be affected by the result of this suit.  Feel free to forward this to anyone you think may be interested.  We all depend on reliable, clean water supplies.  This is particularly timely given the Supreme Court’s ruling restricting protections that had previously been in place for Waters of the United States.  The precedential nature of rulings in favor of protection of Public Trust Resources is particularly significant.
Support is welcome, of course.  Please give generously.  
Be SURE to write Sonoma PTD case” on your contribution! 
To make it easy, you can mail your donation to either organization at one of the addresses below, OR you can contribute via their websites where donate buttons may be easier for you.
Russian Riverkeeper
PO Box 1335
Healdsburg, Ca 95448
www.Russia – there’s donate button on every page
RRK tax ID is: 68-0321117 
California Coastkeeper Alliance
1100 11th St, 3rd Floor
Sacramento, CA 95814
CCKA tax ID is: 95-4834043
I know this is of grave concern to many of us … and many more will benefit from this effort who may never know what was achieved.
Thanks very, very much for your interest in this work.  
Take good care, spread the word.