A day before emergency groundwater regulations for the Paso Robles basin were set to expire, a water conservation advocacy group notified San Luis Obispo County that it plans to sue if the county approves any new, large groundwater wells without sufficient environmental review.
The notice, sent Wednesday by the California Water Impact Network was prompted by the expiration Thursday of emergency regulations for the Paso Robles groundwater basin. However, it may eventually apply to all new wells in the county, lawyers for the group said.
The notice of intent does not give the county a deadline to respond. However, the group hopes that the county will begin settlement negotiations within weeks to avoid litigation.
The two-year emergency ordinance required that all new wells in the Paso Robles basin be equally offset by conservation. It also allowed exceptions if a farmer could prove that a substantial investment in a new irrigated crop had been made immediately before the rule went into effect.
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With the expiration of the emergency ordinance, San Luis Obispo County will not require the county Planning Department approval to drill a new well. It will only require a permit from county Environmental Health Services certifying that the water the well produces is safe.
C-WIN argues that this lack of review violates the California Environmental Quality Act, which requires that any substantial new development or land use does not harm the environment or quality of life, said Carolee Krieger, the group’s executive director.
The failure to regulate new wells threatens the county in a variety of ways including the reduction of aquifer capacity as a result of overpumping and damage to infrastructure such as pipelines, roads and bridges, because of land subsidence, she said.
Recent surveys from NASA have shown land sinking substantially in the Central Valley because of groundwater depletion. No such sinking has been documented in San Luis Obispo County.
“This isn’t a temporary problem that disappears if heavy precipitation returns,” Krieger said. “We have to protect San Luis Obispo County’s aquifers before it is too late.”
The county is in the process of developing a permanent water conservation program that would include the requirements to offset new pumping with an equal amount of conservation. It would apply to the Paso Robles, Nipomo Mesa and Los Osos groundwater basins that are classified as being overpumped or nearly so.
The proposed permanent water conservation ordinance is scheduled to go before the county Board of Supervisors in October, but no date for adoption has been set.
But the C-WIN group thinks those offsets do not go far enough. The only option left for protecting dwindling groundwater resources is to apply more rigorous environmental review, Krieger said.
“Without specific language that proscribes overpumping, any proposed water conservation program is meaningless,” she said. “It’s just verbiage, hot air and wheel spinning.”
County Counsel Rita Neal confirmed that the county has received the notice of intent to sue. However, she said she could not comment further because the notice does not contain sufficient detail about how the county’s policies violate state law.
Krieger said the group only wants larger wells to be subject to the additional environmental scrutiny. “We don’t want these requirements to be onerous for small landowners,” she said.
However, the group did not offer any specific rules on which wells should be classified as large and require a permit. They are hoping the county would develop those guidelines based on factors including the proximity to other wells and the size and geology of the groundwater basin.
“Whether the well would be considered big or consequential would depend on the circumstances,” said Babak Naficy, a San Luis Obispo-based environmental attorney representing C-WIN. “So there is not going to be one-size-fits-all or a bright line.”
Similarly, the group is hoping the county will voluntarily develop guidelines to decide how much environmental review would be required of new wells. State law allows the thoroughness of the review to vary widely.
At one end is an environmental impact report, which is often thousands of pages long and can cost the applicant tens of thousands of dollars to prepare. Other options, such as a negative declaration, are much less complicated and expensive.
“Again, it would depend on the circumstances, and I don’t think that every well should require an environmental impact report,” Naficy said. “But the whole point is that there is no such analysis now.”
The California Water Impact Network describes itself as a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation that “advocates for the just and environmentally sustainable use of California’s water, including stream flows and groundwater reserves, through research, planning, public education, media outreach, and litigation.”