Judge to decide in April whether to suspend Paso basin ordinance

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 17, 2014 

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

On April 15, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Jac Crawford is expected to decide whether or not to suspend the county’s two-year emergency ordinance prohibiting any new groundwater pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The stay was requested by the Paso Robles Water Integrity Network (PR-WIN), one of two groups that have sued the county over its emergency ordinance. The request is part of the group’s lawsuit filed in late November to overturn the pumping ban.

In preparation for the April 15 hearing, attorneys for both PR-WIN and the county have filed their legal arguments in the case for Crawford’s consideration. The hearing is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. in Department 2 of the Paso Robles branch of Superior Court.

In her filing on behalf of PR-WIN, Sophia Treder, a land-use attorney in Santa Margarita, argued that the emergency ordinance is illegal and will cause irreparable harm to residents and property owners in the basin.

The county cannot declare an emergency in the basin because it has not declared the basin to be in overdraft and has never determined the basin’s safe yield, she said. She also noted that the county has not shown that replenishment programs and other sources of water are insufficient to avert a crisis.

“The ordinance is tantamount to a basin-wide injunction against increased water use in the rural areas and, as such, it is unnecessarily restrictive and overbroad,” she wrote.

Citing a California Public Utilities Commission ruling in 1992 in a similar case, Treder said the situation in the Paso Robles basin is “a tragedy of resource management but not an emergency.”

In her filing for the county, Whitney McDonald, deputy county counsel, argued that the county was justified in issuing an emergency ordinance because the situation in the basin had become dire.

She cited the lengthy testimony received by the county Board of Supervisors from basin residents about rapidly falling water levels and the need of many basin residents to drill new, deeper wells and even truck in water for domestic use from potentially unsanitary sources.

“These facts pointed to an increasingly alarming public health crisis,” she wrote. “The sole source of water for the vast majority of residents and business owners in the unincorporated areas of the county overlying the basin was rapidly depleting.”

To do nothing would have amounted to dithering and would have meant that the county has abrogated its responsibility to keep the situation from worsening, McDonald concluded.

On Aug. 27, county supervisors approved an emergency ordinance that prohibits any new pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin unless it is offset by an equal amount of water conservation. If not overturned, the ban on new pumping will remain in effect until Aug. 26, 2015.

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