Supervisors turn focus to Paso Robles groundwater basin

dsneed@thetribunenews.comJuly 9, 2013 

Robert Phillips mows dead weeds at his home in Paso Robles’ Jardine Road area — a stark, dry scene that stands in contrast to the irrigated golf course and vineyard that can be seen from his front yard. Several residents in the area have had to drill deeper wells as the groundwater level has fallen.


San Luis Obispo County supervisors Tuesday directed staff to develop a series of emergency land-use restrictions that could halt precipitous declines in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

No later than late July or early August, county administrators and public works staff will come up with a series of options for limiting groundwater pumping for supervisors to consider. The board will hold a hearing no later than Aug. 27 to decide which measures they will to adopt.

The move was unusual because a discussion of the groundwater basin was not on the agenda. It was prompted by a group of about 20 speakers who used the public comment period to plead with supervisors to take immediate action to deal with the crisis in the basin.

Normally, the board cannot take action unless the item is on the agenda, but exceptions can be made in emergencies. Also, supervisors did not take a formal vote but gave direction to staff.

Whatever supervisors eventually decide to do will require a unanimous vote. Urgency ordinances require at least four votes, said Tim McNulty with the county counsel’s office. With the recent and unexpected death of Supervisor Paul Teixeira, the board now has only four members.

The speakers shared now-familiar stories of wells going dry due to groundwater levels that have dropped by as much as 100 feet in the past two decades and fears among rural residents of losing their homes due to a lack of water. It typically costs between $20,000 and $30,000 to have a new, deeper well drilled, and some residents have resorted to having water trucked in.

“We are in a heck of an emergency,” said Dana Merrill, president of Mesa Vineyard Management of Templeton.

Vintners like Merrill are advocating for the formation of a water management district that could manage groundwater use, obtain new water supplies and provide low-interest loans for rural homeowners who need to drill new wells.

However, rural homeowners want the county to use its authority to take more aggressive action to protect the groundwater basin. They have suggested a moratorium on the planting of new vineyards, restrictions on the amount of water that can be pumped out of the aquifer and a ban on the use of large agricultural ponds.

At the very least, the county needs to take steps to reduce the current increase in groundwater demand, Supervisor Bruce Gibson said. Vineyards in the North County have been planting thousands of new acres of grapes to meet demand.

“It’s way past time to do something serious,” he said.

Supervisor Adam Hill agreed that supervisors have a responsibility to deal aggressively with the crisis, saying that is what they were elected to do. Supervisors Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold wanted to take a slightly more cautious approach.

Mecham said he wanted to give staff enough time to come up with a complete set of options including a discussion of the pros and cons of the various options. Arnold said she wanted some time to get feedback from the various stakeholders.

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