Paso groundwater decision put on hold

Supervisors schedule another hearing to consider proposals about the scope of the ordinance

dsneed@thetribunenews.comAugust 6, 2013 

County supervisors will consider adopting an emergency ordinance that would prohibit new uses of the Paso Robles groundwater basin unless it is offset 2 to 1 with water savings elsewhere in the basin.

The decision to schedule the hearing — set for Aug. 27 — took place after a daylong meeting that featured comments by nearly 100 North County residents and vineyard owners who discussed the effects of drops in the groundwater table, which has fallen 100 feet in some areas in recent decades.

County planning staff will draw up two separate ordinances for consideration at the end of the month. One would encompass the entire groundwater basin, while the other would apply only to an area immediately east of Paso Robles that has seen the steepest drops in groundwater levels.

The vote was unanimous, but the deliberations showed deep divisions among the county supervisors about how the dwindling groundwater basin should be managed.

Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill strongly supported an emergency ordinance, while Supervisors Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold were much more leery of adopting sweeping limits on new groundwater demands.

These divisions will make adopting an ordinance on Aug. 27 very difficult. Emergency ordinances require four votes and, with the recent death of Supervisor Paul Teixeira, only four members currently sit on the board so approval of any ordinance would need a unanimous vote.

If supervisors adopt such an ordinance, it will be valid for 45 days but could be extended for up to two years. During that time, supervisors could pass permanent ordinances dealing with the groundwater crisis.

Gibson and Hill cited multiple instances of wells going dry in the basin and the resultant fears of rural residents losing their homes because of a lack of water. These stories showed an urgent need for action to slow further deterioration of the aquifer and encourage vintners and homeowners within the North County to work together, they said.

“I absolutely support an emergency ordinance,” Gibson said. “We need to act now.”

Mecham would only support an emergency ordinance covering the hardest hit areas east of Paso Robles. An ordinance covering the entire basin would be unwieldy and unnecessary, he said.

Arnold said she wanted to concentrate on helping those residents who have lost their wells and find ways to use more of the county’s allotment of state water.

“Urgency is required because wells are going dry and therefore urgency actions should focus first and foremost on dealing with dry wells,” she said.

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