After a contentious daylong hearing, San Luis Obispo County supervisors Tuesday approved an emergency ordinance that prohibits new development or the planting of irrigated crops within the Paso Robles groundwater basin unless water use can be offset on a 1-1 ratio.
The move was intended to stop demand for water from the basin, where aquifer levels have fallen 70 feet or more over the past 16 years. The emergency ordinance will be good for 45 days but can be extended for up to two years.
“We’ve got to draw the line here,” Supervisor Bruce Gibson said.
All four supervisors had to approve the emergency ordinance for it to pass, leading to the long struggle to reach a consensus.
The specifics of the emergency ordinance are:
- All new water use in the basin will have to be offset in a 1-1 ratio. This was a point of contention among the supervisors. Supervisors Gibson and Adam Hill wanted a 2-1 offset, but Supervisors Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold refused.
- The ordinance applies to the entire groundwater basin with the exception of those areas served by the San Miguel Community Services District and the Shandon County Services Area, which manage their own water use.
- No new restrictions were placed on agricultural ponds. Supervisors determined that a moratorium on such ponds was not needed because they can be regulated through existing county grading permits.
- New irrigation wells must be metered and monitored to track water use.
Arnold was at first reluctant to approve the ordinance, citing concerns about the effects that it would have on the wine industry. However, the other three supervisors were steadfast in passing it, and she eventually agreed.
The moratorium does not apply to residents who are replacing old wells that have gone dry.
The supervisors, who deliberated for more than 11 hours, also approved a waiver of county fees for replacement wells to help rural homeowners whose wells have gone dry. That move is expected to save a homeowner $857 in fees.
Supervisors also directed Public Works staff to come back in 45 days when the emergency ordinance expires with recommendations for forming a water management district of some kind that would equitably allocate water within the basin to avoid lawsuits.
“Unless people can come together, this is going to end up in an adjudicated process,” Mecham said.
The hearing featured hours of public comment from an estimated 75 speakers who came down on both sides of the issue of an emergency ordinance. About half of the speakers, many of them rural homeowners, said the emergency ordinance was needed to stop the groundwater depletion and give county leaders a chance to find a permanent solution.
“We are here because we seek to protect the place we love,” said Joy Sprague of rural Paso Robles.
Critics of the ordinance said it was premature and would have unintended consequences, such as hurting home values and stifling the North County’s thriving wine and tourism industry.
A look at the basin
These maps provided by the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Works show how aquifer levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have dropped. The first map shows the change in groundwater elevation from 1997 to 2013; the second shows the change from 1997 to 2009.