How to save our groundwater basin

August 27, 2013 

Vineyard wells can be seen on both sides of Geneseo Road near Highway 46.


The Paso Robles groundwater basin underlies 505,000 acres of the beautiful North County and southern Monterey County. It is the life-sustaining force for people and agriculture — from livestock to food crops to wine grapes. For years, the basin was believed to be so large we would never run out of water. Unfortunately, we know now that was a myth. Our most precious resource has been in decline for two decades.

We now know that we are using water faster than it can be replenished. Water levels in wells throughout the basin have dropped as much as 100 feet in 10 years. Many have run dry. There have been numerous studies of the groundwater basin. It is now time to take that data and act on stabilizing the basin so it can continue to support the people and agriculture of the North County.

Dry wells are but a symptom of our ailing basin. An interim urgency ordinance is like putting the basin on life support while the Board of Supervisors can devise a long-term treatment plan. Once the basin is brought back to good health, the symptoms of dry wells will eventually stop.

PRO Water Equity recognizes that both short-term and long-term solutions are needed to stabilize the basin. Supply must be increased and/or demand must be reduced. A management structure that fairly represents all landowners is needed to manage the basin as a whole. A time-out is necessary until a structure can be put in place.

To protect the well-being of the residents of the Paso Robles groundwater basin, an interim ordinance must be adopted as an urgency measure. The intent of such an ordinance is to slow the spread of the threat to public safety, health and welfare while long-term supply/demand issues are addressed.

We believe the ordinance should be applied to all unincorporated areas of the basin, minus the Atascadero sub-basin. The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Management Plan was adopted by the county to develop a common understanding of the groundwater issues in the basin.

The various studies that have been conducted since 2002 all agree that the basin is a single, interconnected groundwater basin. The only hydrologically distinct area is the Atascadero sub-basin.

Applying restrictions only to the “red zone” would simply divert development to the unrestricted areas, causing the exempted areas to fall further into crisis. We need to fix the whole problem, not just part of it.

We support a moratorium on any new or expanded use of groundwater from the basin, whether irrigated crop or housing, unless the water use is offset by 2:1. This would only affect new or expanded agriculture/development, not existing agriculture/development. We also support a moratorium on reservoirs or ag ponds greater than one acre-foot in capacity. New wells should be metered, because you can’t manage what you don’t measure.

In order to halt the current rush to plant/develop before an ordinance is in place, it should be adopted without delay, using Aug. 6 as the cutoff, allowing only projects completed prior to that date to move forward.

California Water Code 106 states: “the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water and that the next highest use is for irrigation.” All users of the basin must learn to live within our means. The water belongs to all of us, not just those with the longest straws and deepest pockets.

Jan Seals is treasurer of PRO Water Equity Inc.

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