Landowners could vote as soon as March 2016 on whether to form a district to manage the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin.
John Diodati, the county’s public works department administrator, gave the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission an update Thursday on efforts to form a groundwater management district for the Paso Robles basin, where water levels have plunged more than 70 feet in many areas and another 70 feet is predicted by 2040.
Particular focus of the study session was placed on the anticipated schedule for forming and approving the district. Another study session is scheduled for June 18.
Thursday’s study session was LAFCO’s first major workshop on the issue, although the commission has discussed elements of the formation process in previous meetings, Executive Officer David Church said.
On April 21, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted to petition the commission to begin the process of forming the district.
The commission is expected to hold at least two public hearings on the matter in August and September.
At least one of those hearings is likely to be held in the North County, which is home to the 774-square-mile basin. The commissioners said it is important to have a North County meeting because that is where the district will be formed.
“This process will affect working families in the North County,” said Tom Murray, who chairs the seven-member commission, which consists of public members as well as representatives of the county and the cities in the county.
However, county Supervisor Frank Mecham stressed that, while the commission will form the district, it will be up to property owners in the basin to give the district the final approval in the form of two elections, one to approve the district and another to fund it.
A third election to select the nine-member board of directors will also be held after the district is approved.
Several North County residents spoke in favor of the district. Laurie Gage, who serves on the county’s Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Advisory Committee, said water in the well on her property has dropped 70 feet since 2007.
“I eagerly look forward to LAFCO’s consideration of the water district as the best option,” she said.
The estimated annual budget for the district would be $950,000, funded by a fee of $2.10 per acre in the basin to cover staffing and operations.
However, LAFCO could structure the district so that the per-acre fee varies according to land use, said Diodati, who also serves as the district’s project manager. For example, an acre of irrigated vineyards could pay more than an acre of grazing land.
“That seems very reasonable to me,” he said.
Diodati said he hopes to meet with more than 1,000 residents and property owners in the basin before the decision to form the district is made. Murray praised county staff and North County residents for their work thus far in forming the district.
“The North County is stepping up and being a model in terms of water management,” he said.
The formation of a water district for the Paso Robles basin took on additional urgency recently with the enactment of California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The new law requires that the basin have a management agency in place by 2017 and a management plan in place by 2020.