To help its parched rural neighbors struggling through the drought, the city of Paso Robles will sell drinking water to residents outside city limits.
The Paso Robles City Council unanimously approved the new program Sept. 2, altering an existing 1950s prohibition banning the city from providing water to people outside its boundaries.
“It was a humanitarian thing for me,” Mayor Duane Picanco said. “If you’ve ever (run out of water), bathing in an inch of water in a tub that you just tried to warm on a stove — it’s not easy.”
The water can only be used for domestic needs, such as bathing, cooking and drinking; commercial, agricultural and industrial uses aren’t allowed.
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As of Wednesday, the city had received just one inquiry about the program — an undisclosed water hauler looking to secure a 2,000-gallon truck. A formal application has not been submitted yet.
Residents in the unincorporated expanses of northern San Luis Obispo County have reported falling aquifer levels across the sprawling Paso Robles groundwater basin.
With their wells going dry, and facing the reality of having to drill deeper, more expensive wells or truck in water, basin residents are facing a crisis.
County Supervisor Frank Mecham has said rural residents regularly contact his office asking where they can get water.
In July, after receiving three inquiries about buying water from the city, the Paso Robles City Council asked its staff to look into whether the city supplies could support requests for potable water outside city limits.
A follow-up report from staff showed that the city is able to produce about 1 million to 1.5 million gallons more per day than is currently being used.
“The city requires this standby water, so it can maintain tank levels in the event that one of its existing wells fail,” said Christopher Alakel, the city’s water manager.
In a report to the council, he said, “The city presently has sufficient water supplies to serve a limited amount of emergency water to residents outside the city facing a hardship.”
Alakel isn’t sure what the demand will be from rural residents but said he doesn’t expect demand to exceed 100,000 gallons per day.
“We will be monitoring it closely to ensure sufficient capacity is maintained for city residents,” he said.
For context, Alakel said, if 50 rural residences were each consuming 17 units of water monthly, it would equal about 21,000 gallons per day.
The city doesn’t stand to make money on the deal, as its water fees are intended to only cover the cost of operations.
Under the city program, rural residents can contract with private water haulers, who will work with the city to purchase water for delivery to water tanks on residents’ properties.
The water would be sold for the same price city residents pay — $3.70 per unit. A unit is the equivalent of 748 gallons. A typical household in the city uses 10 units of water per month, which costs about $40.
The water haulers must have certified potable water trucks — for health reasons — which they will hook up to a city hydrant with a temporary water meter placed on it.
The hauler would rent the temporary water meter from the city for $105 per month, so the city can then use the meter to track the water being drawn from that location.
“So (the hauler is) essentially setting up a temporary account with us, and we bill that meter every month,” Alakel said.
Water haulers would then charge their own fees to deliver the water to an individual’s property.
“What the hauler charges is between the hauler and whoever is purchasing the water. Whatever price it is beyond that has nothing to do with the city,” Picanco said.
However, Alakel said city staff will ask the hauler its prices when considering
applications for the water meter rentals and will turn away businesses looking to gouge residents.
The council approved the water sales plan for about a year and asked city staff to return by next summer with a progress report on the popularity of the program. If it’s too popular, city leaders may rethink their position.
“When it comes back to us, that’s the time to really see how much the demand is. And if it’s excessive, then (the program) expires,” Picanco said. “To me, that was the safeguard, because my primary concern is the health and welfare of the city residents.”
A proposed ban expected to go before the county Board of Supervisors later this year on exporting groundwater out of the basin wouldn’t interfere with the city’s new water sales program because the county doesn’t have jurisdiction over the city’s operations.