With newly sworn-in Supervisor Caren Ray on board, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday extended a controversial emergency ordinance banning new pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin to its maximum two-year limit.
Ray provided the crucial fourth vote, with Supervisor Debbie Arnold abstaining in protest over the lack of a definition of who would be exempt from the rule on the basis of economic hardship.
“We need a clear definition of who would be affected by the ordinance and how,” Arnold said.
Supervisors will hold a hearing Nov. 26 to decide the so-called vested rights issue of concern to Arnold. Using vested rights, a grower can apply for an exemption to the moratorium if a significant investment in planting a new crop had been made before the ordinance took effect Aug. 27.
The other supervisors agreed that the vested rights issue needs to be clarified. Supervisor Frank Mecham said scheduling a hearing on vested rights at the end of November will give county planning staff a chance to get input from the agricultural community on equitable criteria for establishing the rights.
“My desire is to find a balance to preserve and stabilize the basin,” Mecham said.
Vested rights were the subject of extensive public comment at the meeting. Supervisors were told that criteria that are too restrictive could harm the wine industry that is the backbone of the economy in the North County.
“I don’t see how you can vote on an ordinance with these issues undecided,” said Matt Turrentine of Grapevine Land Management, a vineyard management company.
Criteria that are too loose could create loopholes that are so big that they would defeat the purpose of having a pumping moratorium, supervisors were also told.
The county has received five requests for exemptions — one for a small olive orchard and four for vineyards covering some 1,100 acres. No new requests for exemptions have been received since the board discussed the issue last week, said Kami Griffin, acting county planning director.
The vote was the first substantial issue to face Ray, who had been sworn in just hours earlier. At the beginning of the hearing, she announced that she had either attended previous hearings on the groundwater basin or reviewed the minutes from them and was ready to vote.
“There is no issue more important than water,” she said. “It touches everyone in the county.”
She acknowledged that much work needs to be done on dealing with the groundwater crisis but that the emergency ordinance was a necessary first step.
“We are going through labor pains to get this going,” she said.
The vote extends the ordinance to the end of August 2015. It prevents any new pumping from the aquifer unless it is equally offset by conservation elsewhere in the basin.
Many who spoke in favor of the ordinance said it is necessary to stabilize the basin until a water management district or another permanent solution to rapidly dropping groundwater levels in the sprawling basin is found.