Over the Hill

Another fair decision by the state water board

Special to The TribuneSeptember 5, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

Sacramento is keeping an eye on the Paso Robles groundwater basin. I hope you saw the article in the Aug. 24 Tribune. The headline said, “State water agency urges action in Paso.” Maybe the state can help.

Water levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin are declining alarmingly. Emergency water-use regulations were proposed. Our county supervisors got a letter last month from the State Water Resources Control Board. Its executive director, Thomas Howard, urged the supervisors to approve the emergency ordinance.

The supervisors approved it a few days later. I don’t know whether Howard’s letter influenced them, but it encouraged me. Many years ago, I saw the State Water Resources Control Board settle another big water controversy and settle it fairly.

That controversy had simmered since World War II. By 1972, it was boiling. The city of San Luis Obispo was taking most of its water from the Salinas River on the north side of the Cuesta Grade. Many North County people resented that.

It all started just before World War II when the Army built a dam on the Salinas River east of Santa Margarita. The dam created the reservoir we call Santa Margarita Lake. It was meant to supply Camp San Luis Obispo, but the camp managed quite nicely on well water and never needed any Salinas River water.

Early on, however, the leaders in San Luis Obispo saw the value of the Army’s water project. Not long after the Army filed on Salinas River water rights, the city of San Luis Obispo filed on them, too. When the war ended, San Luis Obispo was first in line for the project’s water. The city has enjoyed a cheap water supply ever since.

Eventually, North County people believed the water that was diverted for the war effort was lost forever. Their resentment grew. Also, the dam held back all the water the reservoir could contain. No water flowed downstream from the dam unless it overflowed down the spillway.

The city of Paso Robles and other Salinas Valley water users challenged the Army Corps of Engineers’ right to hold back the water and sell it only to San Luis Obispo. The controversy was finally settled by the State Water Resources Control Board.

They ruled that the dam could only hold back new water when a surface stream was flowing in the river from the dam to the Nacimiento River at Camp Roberts. They called it the “live-stream concept.”

Participants in the present Paso Robles groundwater basin controversy may want to communicate with Thomas Howard at the State Water Resources Control Board. The address is P.O. Box 100, Sacramento, CA 95812-0100.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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