Supervisors delay vote on pursuing Paso Robles groundwater district

dsneed@thetribunenews.comFebruary 11, 2014 

After five hours of public testimony and deliberation, the county Board of Supervisors Tuesday postponed until next week taking two actions intended to help the water crisis in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The supervisors spent the afternoon considering whether to officially support state legislation that would allow a water management district for the basin to be formed. However, the board decided the public needed a chance to read the proposed legislation and comment on it before taking action.

Two North County water groups have proposed a water district with a nine-person board of directors, which is different than an “off the shelf” water board allowed by state law. The modified board will require passage of state legislation to create it.

However, the language of the proposed legislation was unavailable at Tuesday’s hearing, prompting more than 40 public speakers by a 2-to-1 margin to urge supervisors to postpone the hearing.

“Take action when you can actually read it,” said Eric Greening of Atascadero.

Supervisors said they supported moving ahead with the legislative process of forming a water district but agreed to delay the hearing a week and reopen it to public comment in order to give the public a chance to review the wording of the draft special legislation.

A copy of the legislation can be found at www.praags.org.

Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes large parts of the Paso Robles water basin, said he was only willing to wait a week because he is concerned that the extreme drought will prompt the state to impose water restrictions on the basin.

“The state will step in if the county doesn’t do something,” he said. “I want to see local control.”

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian has said he is willing to introduce legislation as long as the county supports forming a water district. He has until Feb. 21 to introduce the bill in time for this year’s legislative session.

Some members of the public said they opposed the water district because they think it is a power grab by the county that will result in new fees and taxes. A group of North County property owners, led by vineyard owner Cindy Steinbeck, has sued the county over its handling of the water basin.

“Adjudication is a management tool,” Steinbeck said. “The political process is not the way to manage water.”

Supervisors also postponed a decision whether to hire a company to oversee water conservation efforts in the basin for new development.

An emergency ordinance adopted by supervisors last year requires that the water usage of any new development in the basin be offset equally by conservation. The county is dealing separately with how to offset the water consumed by new agricultural plantings.

The conservation program for new developments would come in the form of retrofitting inefficient toilets and showerheads in buildings constructed before 1994, said James Caruso, a county senior planner in a staff report, who added that the program could be in place as early as 45 days after adoption.

“The retrofit program would be run by a contractor who will retain a licensed plumber and will track water conserved through the program,” he said.

Water levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have fallen precipitously in recent years -- 2 to 6 feet a year in some areas -- causing wells to go dry and forcing many vineyards and rural residents to drill deeper wells. The county and two North County water groups are working to form a water management district to stabilize the basin.

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