Supervisors vote to increase county's authority over Paso Robles basin

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 18, 2014 

San Luis Obispo County supervisors Tuesday passed a resolution that will allow the county to more aggressively manage the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Acting as the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District, supervisors voted to start the process of amending the county’s Paso Robles groundwater basin management plan to increase its management authority.

The resolution was passed with a 4-1 vote with Supervisor Debbie Arnold voting “no.”

The county’s current basin plan has several key limitations that need to be corrected, said Paavo Ogren, county Public Works director. These include the lack of a funding plan, enforcement authority and the ability to limit pumping from the basin.

Ogren said it will likely take a year to complete the process of developing “a more robust” basin management plan. The process will include public notifications and other public outreach, collaboration with interested parties in the basin, hearings and the opportunity for a majority of the landowners to protest if they don’t like what the county is doing.

By passing the resolution, supervisors approved a process for more effectively managing a basin that has seen significant drops in water levels in recent years and increasing reports of wells going dry, Ogren said.

Four of the supervisors agreed, saying urgent action is needed to get the basin back in balance.

“We can’t kick the can down the road anymore,” said Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes most of the basin.

In voting “no,” Arnold said the county needs to give the existing basin plan a chance to work and to wait for additional studies that will clarify the status of the basin, including which areas are in more trouble than others.

“The future of residents of the basin is in the balance with what we do today,” she said.

Ogren said that moving ahead with enhancing the authorities in the basin plan does not conflict with efforts to form an independent water district for the basin. If a district is formed, it could take over management of the basin from the county or it could be managed cooperatively with a joint powers agreement.

A bill to establish an independent district with a hybrid board of directors, with some seats chosen by popular vote and some by landowners, is stalled while the California Legislature examines its legality.

Ogren also said that the county’s management process has checks and balances that should prevent abuse.

For example, before pumping from the basin could be limited, the county would have to prove that it is not practical to provide additional sources of water.

Twenty-seven people spoke at the hearing with a small majority being against the resolution. Most of the speakers against it said they did not trust the county with any additional authority.

Former county Supervisor Mike Ryan of Creston said supervisors needed to do a better job of detailing how the county would use their additional management powers in the basin.

“I believe the way you are doing this, you are not bringing the people along with you,” he said.

Ogren and several of the supervisors said passing the resolution was a necessary precondition to fleshing out the details of the more robust water management plan. To do so without the resolution would be getting ahead of themselves, they said.

“When you are dealing with a crisis, there always going to be a certain amount of ambiguity,” said Supervisor Adam Hill.

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