North County water concerns

August 1, 2013 

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will hear proposals that would initiate an Urgency Ordinance related to the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. Arguably, this will be the most discussed and cussed issue that has come before the board since I was elected to this office. What would it mean? Who would be affected? How long would it last? And finally, what would it do?

I’d like to put some things in perspective. First, this basin is around 800 square miles, and one-third of it is in southern Monterey County. There is much speculation as to the origination of the water supply. All the hydrologists who have been involved in studying this basin over many years have this take on it: It does not come from glaciers and it does not come from the Sierra snowpack. They have said that we enjoy one of the largest natural watersheds in the Western United States and it is consistently recharged by rainfall. I suppose if you go deep enough, there would be archeological evidence of glaciers, but studies have shown it is specific to rainfall.

From a historical perspective, San Luis Obispo County has experienced changes over the years. These changes can be applied to climate, population growth and shifts in agricultural uses. We get erratic rainfall. Data show that in one year, we might get 8 inches of rain, and in other years, more than 30 inches.

From the standpoint of climate, we have experienced cyclical droughts. They are like an earthquake … you don’t know when it’s coming nor how long it will last. This particular drought isn’t the first, nor will it be the last.

From a population standpoint, the population of San Luis Obispo County in 1960 was around 81,000. Today, we are at 270,000. And, over the years, we have experienced dry farming, almonds and alfalfa. The almonds are all but gone, alfalfa continues, dry farming has declined and the acres of irrigated agriculture is on the rise. So, in my estimation we have the “perfect storm” when it comes to the issue of water.

I served on the 2003 Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Study. At the time, I was the mayor of Paso Robles and the future of water was my No. 1 concern. From that study and prior information about the basin, our council concluded that the Nacimiento Water Project was key to future water supplies for Paso Robles. That study also outlined the areas of concern in the basin … Estrella and El Pomar.

Three years later, in 2006, the county initiated a “feasibility study for water banking.” This study, too, identified the areas of concern, which were the same, and made suggestions for water banking or storage of supplemental water. It was in a draft form but never went to public hearings.

Now we have reached a critical stage in the North County regarding our water consumption. I believe we have three concerns:

1. How do we help folks who are out of water or have wells that have dramatically declined?

2. How can we stabilize the basin?

3. What programs or plans can we put in place to maintain a stabilized basin over the long haul?

I believe there are answers to all of the above, but it will take collective input from everyone. It will take three things: inter-jurisdictional cooperation, political will and money.

Now is not the time for political grandstanding or blaming someone else. Now is the time for serious consideration regarding the most precious resource we have and need. There is a saying by the Bushmen of Africa: “We do not govern water. Water governs us.”

Frank Mecham represents District 1 on the county Board of Supervisors.

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