Ask anyone familiar with San Luis Obispo County’s controversial year-old emergency ordinance limiting new pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin and you’ll likely hear a litany of complaints.
Opponents say the ordinance is either illegal or so poorly written that it unfairly punishes landowners and farmers in the basin.
Supporters who consider it a necessary first step say it has so many loopholes that it has done little to curtail pumping in a basin that is so depleted it is facing economic and environmental disaster.
On Aug. 27, 2013, the Board of Supervisors passed an emergency ordinance that prohibited any new housing development or expansion of irrigated agriculture in the basin unless its water use is offset by an equal amount of conservation. Landowners who had spent money preparing to plant also could apply for an exemption from the ordinance.
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The ordinance was soon extended to the maximum two-year duration. County planning staff is preparing new regulations that would make permanent many of the provisions of the temporary ordinance.
The goal of the ordinance is to limit pumping to current levels until a more permanent solution for dropping aquifer levels can be found, said Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district encompasses much of the basin.
“I still believe it was the right thing to do because it gave us a timeout to figure out what we need to do,” he said. “I can only imagine the criticism that would come back to us if we did nothing.”
Demand outstrips supply
One possible solution is already in the works. The state Legislature haspassed a bill
that would allow the creation of a water management district for the basin with a board of directors that is a mixture of landowners and basin residents. Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of September to sign the bill into law.
The emergency ordinance and the proposed management district both are in response to a longtime problem of demand for water outstripping supply in the Paso Robles aquifer.
Since 1997, water levels in the sprawling 790-square-mile groundwater basin that covers most of the North County have dropped more than 70 feet in many areas. Extreme drought has exacerbated the crisis and caused hundreds of wells to go dry, forcing rural residents and vineyards alike to drill expensive deeper wells — or truck in water.
Kurt Bollinger, manager of Miller Drilling Co. of Paso Robles, said a new well typically costs $25,000. The exact cost of drilling a well chiefly depends on the depth of the well.
The San Luis Obispo County Public Works Department is conducting a capacity study for the Paso Robles basin that should have more information about the status of the basin. That study is due out this month.
Exemptions allowed planting
One of the biggest sources of criticism of the ordinance is the exemptions granted to vintners and other growers with plans pending to plant more grapes. Called vested rights, the exemptions were written into the law to avoid economic hardships for wineries that could prove they had made substantial investments preparing for new plantings immediately before the ordinance took effect.
Twenty-eight applications for exemptions have been granted by the county. Of those, more than 90 percent are for new vineyards covering a total of three square miles. One application was denied and five are on hold pending more information.
Joseph Carrasco, who owns vineyards in the Paso Robles and San Miguel areas, was granted a vested rights exemption to plant 25 acres on a parcel he owns east of Paso Robles in the Jardine Road area. He has completed planting the vineyard.
He hired Kirk Consulting of Atascadero to prepare the vested rights request. He said getting the exemption cost him an additional $20,000.
He thinks the urgency ordinance, if anything, caused a rush of planting.
People were afraid the vested rights process would be their last chance to do any planting in the basin, he said.
“I probably would have held off on planting, but everything has been accelerated because people think, let’s get on board before we are not able to do anything,” Carrasco said.
Landowners can also apply to plant new crops if they can prove that the water used to irrigate those crops will be offset by an equal amount of water conservation in a one-to-one ratio.
The offset is achieved by replacing irrigation-intensive crops, such as orchards and row crops, with ones that use less water, mostly vineyards. The county has granted nine crop offset conversions that has added about 1.5 square miles of newly irrigated land. More are pending a decision by the county.
All of this new activity caused a flurry of 15 complaints about possible violations of the emergency ordinance, said Kami Griffin, assistant county planning director. These were investigated and found to be allowed under the vested rights or offset programs or were plantings outside the water basin.
The wave of new plantings prompted Supervisor Bruce Gibson, chairman of the county board, to say that the ordinance is not having the effect of creating a sustainable or water-neutral basin. A year ago, he had unsuccessfully argued for a more restrictive ordinance, specifically one that required a two-to-one offset.
“We are more than 11 months into the ordinance, and we have very little to show for it,” he said. “We are just chipping away and are continuing to make the problem worse.”
Plenty of opposition
When the emergency ordinance was adopted a year ago, it drew considerable opposition as a breach of property and water rights. Those opponents have not gone away.
One of the most vocal is Cindy Steinbeck, a co-owner of Steinbeck Vineyards and Winery in Paso Robles, who filed two lawsuits against the ordinance. One seeks to have the law declared illegal and the other asserts that property owners have the right to pump the water under their land.
The lawsuit to have the ordinance declared illegal is set to go to trial next year. The other has been transferred to a complex litigation court in Santa Clara County where it could take years to be settled.
At a recent hearing, Steinbeck said property values in the basin are being reassessed at lower levels, causing economic hardship for owners who are trying to sell. She urged supervisors not to make any of the limitations of the emergency ordinance permanent.
“The face of agriculture in the North County will be changed forever,” she said.
Another consistent critic of the emergency ordinance is county Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district includes part of the basin. She says the ordinance is a simplistic, one-size-fits-all solution to a basin that is very diverse. She prefers exploring the possibility of using excess water from Lake Nacimiento to help replenish depleted aquifers in the basin.
“The Nacimiento pipeline has produced new opportunities for water to recharge the basin,” she said. “I think that is something that will move us in a positive direction.”
The Nacimiento project has 6,000 acre-feet of unallocated water that could be acquired for use in the Paso basin. The pipeline runs from the reservoir south to San Luis Obispo.
County planners say that laying the additional pipes and other infrastructure needed to deliver the water to the basin would require an environmental impact report that would take more than a year to complete.
The pipeline is currently out of commission and making no deliveries after small leaks were discovered in a stretch that crosses beneath the Nacimiento River on Camp Roberts property. Work is now underway to identify the leaks and repair them.
Wake up call
The controversy over the emergency ordinance is not likely to go away when it expires a year from now. Supervisors have directed staff to return to them with possible amendments to the county’s land-use ordinances that would make the offset requirements of the urgency ordinance permanent.
“It seems to me that the least that we can do is to continue water neutrality,” Gibson said.
Not everyone has a negative opinion of the emergency ordinance, however. Supervisors Adam Hill and Caren Ray said its main benefit has been that it acted as a powerful wake-up call to the seriousness of the water crisis.
“In a very orderly fashion, the ordinance brought urgency to the situation,” Ray said. “We have so far to go to properly manage water in our county, so it was a glowing success for that reason.”
Hill acknowledges that the law has done little to discourage pumping in the basin but has had other benefits. It provided incentive for diverse groups of North County residents and growers to come together and propose the formation of a water district.
“Have we done anything to stop pumping and ensure the health of the basin? Not yet,” Hill said. “But it forced people to work together for common local solutions.
“It also relieved fear among some people whose wells were going dry that we weren’t going to do anything.”