Well users in municipal areas of unincorporated parts of Santa Barbara County who are served by water districts will have to apply for discretionary permits if they want to drill for water in the future.

With a 3-2 vote Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors amended county policy to require all new residential well users in urban areas with existing municipal water district service connections to obtain a discretionary permit before drilling.

All new wells, whether a replacement or brand-new well, will also be required to have flow meters. The vote doesn't apply to agricultural wells.

North County supervisors Peter Adam and Steve Lavagnino dissented, with Adam, a farmer, saying more than once throughout the lengthy hearing that requiring flow meters on wells doesn't provide useful information about the health of a groundwater basin.

"It doesn't add anything to the mix," Adam said. "Adjudication and SGMA will be the ultimate authority. If they don't conserve, they run out of water. Nature controls overuse and waste in 99 out of 100 cases. You don't need this action. Flow meters tell you nothing."

Lavagnino called the move "overkill," especially since the courts have ruled on rights to the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin and SGMA is also in place.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, also called SGMA, drove formation last month of a local groundwater sustainability agency, which looks to manage the fringe areas of the groundwater basin that weren't included as part of a 2008 court-stipulated agreement settling a decades-old lawsuit over water rights.

Many who spoke during public comment also noted either adjudication or SGMA was in place to manage the county's numerous groundwater basins and users didn't need another layer of bureaucracy or added costs to access water that was rightfully theirs.

Longtime agriculture land use planner Lisa Bodrogi told the supervisors that overlying groundwater users in rural areas have first rights to the water as long as they can get to it. She also urged the board to not add more fees with discretionary permits and flow meters.

"It would kill them," Bodrogi said. "It's not fair. It's not reasonable and it's not justified."

Staff said it was bringing the item to the supervisors, in part, for direction on policy because the county is still experiencing a drought. At the same time, it's seeing the number of well permit applications increasing in comparison to historical numbers, although that is leveling now off.

The county saw a peak in well permit activity from 2009 to 2013, when there were more than 250 applications submitted in that last year.

The county's well permit application doesn't differentiate whether the water will be used for domestic or irrigation purposes, and most of the applications received during the peak period were from the Montecito area, according to county staff.

"If there's direction, we absolutely have to find out what's for landscape and what's for agriculture," Lavagnino said. "We should be able to mine that down carefully and quickly."

Prior to Tuesday's action by the supervisors, individuals simply had to go through a ministerial process to obtain a permit to drill a well in the county, and as long as the person met the application requirements, they received a permit.

"It's not something that we have choice of saying 'No' on," county Environmental Health Services Director Larry Fay told the supervisors about the permitting process. 

He also said county officials received a "scathing letter" from the state Coastal Commission last year chastising the county for the way it handles well permits, and during a well-drilling operation near Goleta in October, there was a two-day hydrogen sulfide release.

April Charlton covers Santa Barbara County for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter@WordsDawn

 

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