Ordinance is a needed timeout for groundwater basin, stakeholders agree

dsneed@thetribunenews.comAugust 28, 2013 

Now the real work begins.

Tuesday’s landmark decision by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to impose emergency land-use restrictions to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin begins the lengthy and complicated process of finding a permanent solution to the North County’s dwindling aquifers.

Stakeholders on both sides of the issue said the ordinance provides a needed timeout on new pumping from the basin. A permanent solution will be the establishment of a water management district that can fairly and equitably allocate the basin’s limited supply of water.

“We really need to get serious about establishing some sort of a governance structure; that’s step one,” said Larry Werner, president of the groundwater basin’s Blue Ribbon Steering Committee. “The vote will serve as an incentive for everyone to be focused and find a solution.”

The emergency ordinance prohibits any new pumping from the basin unless it is offset by conservation or by stopping an equal amount of pumping from elsewhere in the basin in a 1-to-1 ratio. In other words, if a vintner wants to plant 30 acres of new grapes, he will have to stop irrigating 30 acres of grapes elsewhere in the basin so there is no net increase in groundwater pumping.

The new ordinance does not prohibit the drilling of new wells, said Kami Griffin, acting county planning director. But the owner would have to comply with the offset, if use of the well entailed new pumping.

“The well would be required to be metered and monitored by the landowner,” she said.

Because the emergency ordinance targets new plantings, most North County winegrowers will be unaffected by it, said Kris Beal, executive director of the Central Coast Vineyard Team, which supports sustainable winegrowing.

“The people that I am talking to are very invested in taking a leadership role in this issue,” she said. “They are taking meaningful actions that will address this problem.”

Vintners and builders generally opposed the ordinance for fear that it could hurt the North County’s economy. But Jerry Reaugh, chairman of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, described the new ordinance as “not terribly unfair.”

"We have problems in the basin, and a timeout is clearly appropriate," he said. "It was a good compromise, and the fact that it went 4-to-0 says that we're all serious about this problem and we all need to work on it."

Rural homeowners generally supported the ordinance and praised the supervisors’ adoption of it. Many homeowners report wells going dry and face the possibility of losing their homes because of it.

“Overall, I think it was good,” said Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, a group of basin residents who lobbied for the ordinance. “The board did the right thing.” Luft and her husband own a small vineyard in the El Pomar area of Templeton.

Luft echoed Werner’s opinion that the focus now needs to be on establishing a water management district.

“We need a structure in place by the end of the year, at least conceptually,” she said. “If we don’t get something in place by next summer our wells will be in worse shape.”

Tuesday’s vote saw a deeply divided Board of Supervisors put their differences aside to find a solution. The emergency ordinance required the approval of all four supervisors.

Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill have supported the ordinance from the beginning of the process, but North County Supervisors Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold were more reluctant.

“Yesterday, Frank and I were able to work out those differences and work in the attitude of give and take that helped get the ordinance passed,” Hill said in an e-mail to The Tribune. “It was sort of thrilling to have it happen.”

Early on in the meeting, Mecham announced that he supported the ordinance. He rejected the argument that the board was rushing into passing the new restrictions.

“Time is of the essence,” he said. “The basin has a problem, so what are we going to do about it?”

But, he was concerned with some of the details. Specifically, he wanted the offset ratio reduced from 2-to-1 to 1-to-1.

He also wanted San Miguel and Shandon exempted from the ordinance because they already have special districts that manage their water. Hill and Gibson were skeptical but went along with those demands in order to get a deal.

“I got everything I wanted,” Mecham acknowledged before they voted.

Arnold was much more reluctant to go along with the ordinance. She said she was concerned about the effect it would have on the wine industry.

Arnold wanted more exemptions for wineries and other businesses that had projects in the planning pipeline. Hill and Gibson refused those exemptions, saying that they rendered the ordinance meaningless.

After 11 hours of testimony and deliberations, Gibson called for a vote on the ordinance without Arnold’s exemptions. When Arnold’s name was called, she hesitated but eventually voted for it. Gibson quickly gaveled the meeting to a close.

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