Search for solutions in the groundwater crisis

County ordinances, water districts and other methods could help save a dwindling resource — if stakeholders can commit to the effort

dsneed@thetribunenews.com and jlynem@thetribunenews.comJune 19, 2013 

Editor's note: This is the final installment in a five-part series. Read previous stories: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Residential wells in North County neighborhoods will continue to dry up, Paso Robles’ wine industry will be in jeopardy, and city water supplies will be threatened unless San Luis Obispo County leaders act soon to stop declining water levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Faced with this unprecedented crisis, county officials and stakeholders know immediate steps must be taken to stabilize it. But they have only begun to develop viable solutions to balance the needs of homeowners, businesses and North County vineyards, by far the largest water users.

“What’s at risk is the future of the county,” said county Supervisor Adam Hill. “If we wreck the basin, it could be devastating.”

So far, San Luis Obispo County supervisors have indicated support for acquiring other sources of water from the state and Salinas River and providing emergency relief for homeowners who need emergency water deliveries or help to drill a new well.

County officials are also in favor of establishing a water management district. However, it’s unclear what type of district the North County needs or ultimately, whether such a district would have enough authority to limit the amount of water pumped out of the basin.

County supervisors have dismissed any restrictions on new development or vineyard planting to reduce water demand, saying the move would be ineffective and invite lawsuits. Moreover, state law gives property owners the right to pump water underneath their land; California and local governments have no power to regulate groundwater.

Some members of a steering committee tasked to find a solution to the groundwater crisis don’t appear to have the stomach for the political fight that would be needed to establish a water district that would have sufficient teeth to effectively manage groundwater pumping in the basin, as many rural homeowners have called for.

Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district covers Paso Robles, fears the unintended consequences that well metering and pump taxes might have, such as damaging the lucrative wine industry.

“At one time, I thought that may be a way forward, but the more I look into it, the more difficult it seems to be,” he said. “You can’t take out of the equation the economy that the wine industry creates.”

Absent legislative changes on the state level, or political will to enact local laws that monitor pumping or restrict land use, community members are left to tackle their most pressing water problems in their own way.

Many California counties rely on the cooperation of a diverse group of stakeholders, who often disagree on the best way to handle water crises. Too often, battles over water end in protracted litigation, which is what San Luis Obispo County officials want desperately to avoid.

A total of 22 adjudicated groundwater basins exist in the state, with the closest being the Santa Maria Valley basin. Stakeholders in the Santa Maria Valley voted in 1993 to create a water management district, but a lawsuit was filed in 1997, with nearly 1,000 parties involved.

Once a basin goes into adjudication, the courts take over and typically appoint a water master to manage the basin.

“The last thing I want to see happen is have this basin adjudicated,” Mecham said. “It’s like putting a bunch of mouse traps on the table, and throwing a ping-pong ball and watching them go — everyone is suing everyone, and they don’t even know why.”

Looking elsewhere

No one-size-fits-all solution exists to solve groundwater issues; what works in one community may not work in the next.

But there are direct and indirect ways that counties — some with regulations that are more stringent than others — can stop aquifers from dwindling further.

Napa County, renowned for its wine country, has an ordinance requiring discretionary review of new groundwater uses in the Milliken-Sarco-Tulocay area, which has been deemed groundwater deficient.

“You can’t put in a new house, plant a new vineyard or intensify the use of property unless it’s not impacting the aquifer,” said Hillary Gitelman, director of Napa County’s Department of Conservation, Development and Planning.

Fortunately, the majority of Napa County’s vineyards are planted outside of that area, and in other parts of the county, no discretionary approval is required. Rather, the county has an appointed advisory committee that has helped develop a groundwater monitoring program to ensure more aquifers “don’t get into the same situation,” Gitelman said.

Twenty-seven counties have adopted groundwater management ordinances, according to a 2003 report in California. However, the majority of those counties had adopted ordinances solely for the purpose of requiring a permit to export groundwater.

Metering wells, instituting pump taxes, implementing fees paid on a graduated scale based on water use, and establishing water management districts offer other avenues to control water use, water management experts say.

Rebecca Nelson, who leads the comparative groundwater law and policy program for Stanford University’s Water in the West, said it’s preferable for communities to put together special districts using legislation tailored to their needs.

Often, these districts have boards where half of the members are elected and half appointed, and that helps when there’s a lack of political will, said Nelson, noting that the idea of instituting pumping restrictions or enforcing them can be problematic.

Orange County has one of the most robust water management districts in the state, formed through the Legislature and tailored to specifically solve its water resource problems. The district meters its groundwater wells to monitor how much water is being pumped out of the basin, and users are charged an assessment fee based on water use.

These so-called pump taxes create a powerful incentive to conserve water and generate funds to pay for other activities such as obtaining new water sources and conservation.

“Forming a water management district is basically hiring a police officer to do your work for you,” said Roy Herndon, chief hydrogeologist with the Orange County Water Agency.

Whether a community is better off with a groundwater management district or an ordinance remains to be seen, said Tim Ross, senior engineering geologist with the state Department of Water Resources Southern Region.

“County ordinances can be put together to help manage water supply,” he said. “A water district could be set up that has the authority to manage groundwater. Both of these systems could be effective at managing groundwater; it all depends on how the systems are set up.”

In some ways, though, having the community try to put together a water district to help manage groundwater resources is “probably going to be the best avenue to make sure that everyone’s voices are adequately heard,” Ross added.

Signs of progress

While the future of the Paso Robles groundwater basin is far from certain, a group of stakeholders on the blue ribbon steering committee, a panel of North County residents appointed by the county to find a solution to the groundwater crisis, believes they are making progress to stabilize the aquifer.

Larry Werner, committee chairman, said the group plans to work with experts to help define what will be the most appropriate structure for a groundwater management district.

Another group, the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, consisting of agriculture and vineyard owners, is pursuing formation of a water district on a parallel track to the blue ribbon committee. The group’s founders say they are willing to use their own money to hire experts to help form the district.

But it will ultimately be up to county leaders to form the district.

Werner acknowledged “there is no magic bullet” to solve the problem. It will take a combination of short-term and long-term solutions, he said.

“The answer is not just conservation; the answer is conservation, and new water resources, and recycled water, and utilizing what we have in other ways more effectively, and that takes time,” Werner said. Any regulatory action would be a “political decision,” he said.

As far as political leadership that would impose restrictions to reduce strain on the basin, county Supervisor Adam Hill, whose 3rd District encompasses a portion of San Luis Obispo, the Avila Beach area, Pismo Beach and Grover Beach, said he is disappointed that the entire Board of Supervisors has not gone further with emergency land use controls, including limiting the use of agricultural ponds, which use a lot of water.

The board voted 3-2 in May to reject such measures, with Hill and Supervisor Bruce Gibson dissenting.

“You can’t fix the basin once it’s been depleted,” he said. “There’s no going back, and that’s a reality that should scare us and help us to understand what’s at stake.”

Four case studies that could work here

A look at how four other areas in California are managing their groundwater issues:

Orange County Water Agency: Water district formed through the state Legislature in 1933. It allows metering of groundwater wells so officials know how much water is being pumped out of the basin. Users are charged a replenishment assessment of $266 per acre-foot. Users who exceed individual usage limits are charged a pump tax called an equity assessment of $900 per acre-foot, which is the same cost as buying the water from a supplemental source, such as the State Water Project.

Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency: Based in southern Ventura County but separate from Ventura County or city government, this district was formed by the Legislature in 1982. The agency, governed by appointed board members, requires all wells within the agency to register and report groundwater pumping. A fee of 50 cents is levied for each acre-foot of water pumped from local groundwater aquifers. It also requires permits for the construction of new wells to help manage pumping.

Napa County: Adopted an ordinance in 1999 requiring discretionary review of new groundwater uses in the Milliken-Sarco-Tulocay area, which has been deemed to be groundwater deficient. In an effort to curb water use in other areas without regulation, the county has set up an advisory committee to help oversee a groundwater monitoring program.

Monterey County: Formed in 1995, the Monterey County Water Resources Agency manages Nacimiento Lake and Lake San Antonio to recharge the aquifer. It also recycles water, prohibits pumping along the coast to prevent saltwater intrusion and charges a per-acre assessment on irrigated land that ranges from $4 to $24 per acre.

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