Over the Hill

We can't let fear stop us from saving Paso Robles basin

Special to The TribuneMarch 27, 2014 

Phil Dirkx

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Those were the words of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first inaugural speech in 1933. But we North County people can still say those words today. We fear our Paso Robles groundwater basin is shrinking away.

When Roosevelt became president, the United States was economically sick. The Great Depression was rampaging. Stock and crop prices had collapsed. Businesses and banks were failing. One out of four workers couldn’t find work.

The Paso Robles groundwater basin isn’t that sick. It doesn’t need an intensive-care bed, but maybe a wheelchair or at least a walker. In some areas, the basin’s underground water levels have dropped alarmingly. Many property owners have been forced to drill expensive new wells or deepen existing ones.

The basin is suffering from too much pumping, aggravated by a chronic drought.

The majority of our county Board of Supervisors recently voted to take a more active role in managing the underground basin’s health. The supervisors want to cure its creeping dehydration.

They also want to explore other water sources for the basin, including recycled wastewater, desalted seawater and/or imported water. I wonder if we can get enough from those sources cheaply enough.

The obvious way to heal the basin would be to limit the pumping when necessary, where necessary and if necessary. That’s where fear comes in. Some property owners probably fear pumping limits could be allotted unfairly or would reduce crop yields or would prevent new plantings.

And they might be right. We shouldn’t assume they’re being unreasonable. They just see things differently. But the way I see it, the water in the underground basin belongs to all the people who own property above it. It’s just like the air there, which belongs to everyone who breathes it.

There’s no way to put a fence around your air. It can blow anywhere. And there’s no way to put a fence around your underground water. It can flow anywhere. If you pump more than your fair share of it you’re taking it from your neighbors.

Reducing pumping would be like dieting. We diet to make our bodies healthier. Fair limits on pumping could make the basin healthier and more dependable for everyone.

Think of the shrinking Paso Robles groundwater basin as a toothache. If we put off going to the dentist, it will cost us much more when we finally do go. And if we wait too long we’ll lose the tooth. Let’s not lose our Paso Robles groundwater basin because of fear.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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