Urgency ordinance for entire Paso basin needed

Supervisors should reject partial groundwater measures

letters@thetribunenews.comAugust 26, 2013 

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

On Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has an opportunity to prevent further decline of the Paso Robles groundwater basin by adopting temporary land use restrictions.

The board is looking at two options: Restrict growth throughout much of the basin, or apply the ordinance to a limited area east of Paso Robles, where the biggest aquifer declines have occurred.

We strongly urge board members to put ideological differences aside and act to protect the entire basin by adopting the more comprehensive ordinance.

There is really no excuse for partial measures, because as recent data have shown, aquifer levels throughout the basin have dropped even more than previously documented.

Last week, the county Department of Public Works released a new map of groundwater elevations that shows that most of the basin has suffered declines of at least 70 feet since 1997.

And on the front page of Sunday’s Tribune, a map shows that a substantial increase in new wells over the past five years has coincided with a drop in aquifer levels.

To allow further unfettered pumping of groundwater is so incredibly risky that we cannot imagine any responsible elected official allowing that to happen.

Indeed, the situation already is so serious that the State Water Resources Control Board has weighed in. It’s calling on county supervisors to act to protect the basin, which it describes as “in a state of serious overdraft with water levels continuing to decline.”

While no one denies that the situation is serious, so far, supervisors have split 2-2 over what remedial action to take.

During a discussion at the board’s Aug. 6 meeting, North County Supervisor Frank Mecham was reluctant to adopt an ordinance that would cover the entire basin, preferring instead to apply restrictions to the area east of Paso Robles that’s been most affected by declining water levels.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who also represents North County, wanted to concentrate on helping residents whose wells have dried up, and on increasing the county’s allotment of state water.

We agree that it’s important to find ways to assist rural residents and small growers. Providing low-interest loans for deeper wells is one such method. But that’s a Band-Aid. What will happen when the new wells dry up? Will there be loans on top of loans?

We also believe that seeking out supplemental water — whether it’s state water or some other source — is an important component of an overall solution, but that’s going to take time. Nipomo, another community dealing with a declining groundwater basin, has been working on finding a new source of water for more than 10 years, and still doesn’t have one.

As for those who worry that any restrictions would harm the wine grape industry — and in turn undermine the North County economy — we believe far greater harm could occur down the road if vineyards are allowed to expand by several thousand acres, draining the basin even more.

Keep in mind, too, that the proposed restrictions would not amount to a moratorium. Vineyard expansions and other growth still would be allowed, as long as water used by new development is offset 2-to-1 by water savings elsewhere in the basin.

Also, the land-use restrictions the board will consider Tuesday will be in place temporarily — no longer than two years — while a water management district and other permanent solutions are developed.

As we’ve said before, the logical solution — the only solution, really — is to give the basin a breather while a more comprehensive water management plan is developed.

We call on the Board of Supervisors to protect one of the county’s most critical resources by adopting an urgency ordinance for the entire Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.

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