Stability of basin must be priority

Supervisors need to create balanced exemption policy for North County water ordinance

letters@thetribunenews.comOctober 6, 2013 

Things got testy at the Board of Supervisors last week. Four votes were needed to continue the emergency moratorium on vineyard planting in the Paso Robles groundwater basin, and one of the four supervisors — Debbie Arnold — dug in her heels and refused to budge on the issue of hardship exemptions.

As it turns out, the appointment of Caren Ray to the Board of Supervisors will likely mean the moratorium will survive without Arnold’s support. But the issue of exemptions, which the board continued until mid-November, will remain.

While an exemption policy may sound like a bureaucratic footnote to a bigger issue, it is central to the success of the moratorium. If too many exemptions are granted, that will defeat the purpose of an urgency ordinance aimed at stabilizing the basin while a permanent water management plan is developed. But if the county does not allow projects that were already “in the pipeline” to continue, that will almost certainly lead to litigation.

Arnold warns that it also will lead to the disappearance of “tens of millions of dollars” in economic investments, and the loss of an untold number of jobs in agriculture and ag-related businesses.

While her predictions may be overblown, we share Arnold’s concern about a moratorium’s financial consequences for the agriculture industry, including the impact on local employment.

But as we’ve said many times, we believe the economic damage will be much more severe if the basin is irreparably harmed.

And if we’re worried about turning away investors, who in the world would invest in an area where a water supply is in jeopardy — but government is too afraid and/or too shortsighted to do much about it?

On top of that, the water restrictions included in the urgency ordinance are not as incredibly onerous as the word “moratorium” implies.


• Vineyard owners will not have to scale back current operations.

• If they had already planned to expand — and can show they had made significant progress before the moratorium took effect — they will be granted a “vested rights” exemption and allowed to plant. (Again, the exact requirements for an exemption still have to be determined.)

• If they are denied an exemption by county staff, they can appeal that to the Board of Supervisors.

• And finally and most importantly, vineyard expansions and other developments will still be allowed, as long as applicants offset any new water use by finding ways to conserve elsewhere.

As with any policy, though, the devil is in the details, and there are plenty of details to hash out in deciding who qualifies for an exemption.

At last week’s meeting, Arnold urged adopting language that would qualify growers for exemptions if they could provide evidence that “financing or other written contractual commitments were entered into prior to the effective date of this ordinance for site preparation, planting or sale of the product.”

But other supervisors said that standard is far too loose, and would result in a frenzy of planting that would undermine the intent of the moratorium.

They may be correct, but at this point, we’re dealing with speculation, rather than fact. That’s why it made perfect sense for the board to continue the question of who should qualify for exemptions.

That will give county staff time to meet with growers and do other research. At the end of that period of study, we hope that staff will be able to provide a better idea of how many acres might be planted under various exemption scenarios.

Whatever exemption policy the board ultimately adopts, we recognize that no one will be 100 percent satisfied. But we believe it’s critical to hear the concerns of growers, homeowners and other stakeholders, and we strongly urge them to take part in the process.

We hope the process leads to a compromise that will eliminate financial hardships to the greatest extent possible. But the Board of Supervisors must not lose sight of the primary objective of the urgency ordinance, which is to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin from further degradation.

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