South County ponders new groundwater management agencies for fringe areas of basin


Faced with a June 30 deadline from the state, South County cities and community services districts are beginning to consider whether to form groundwater sustainability agencies to manage portions of the Santa Maria groundwater basin, or if they want to leave that management to San Luis Obispo County.

The Arroyo Grande City Council this past week decided to schedule a public hearing on the issue at its next meeting, while the Nipomo Community Services District Board of Directors will consider the topic Wednesday, and the Pismo Beach City Council on April 4.

Basin management isn’t a new concept in the South County: Much of the Santa Maria groundwater basin is already managed by court-formed groups set up in 2005 and 2008, following a lengthy legal dispute over water rights in the area.

That portion of the basin is not affected by the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires groundwater sustainability agencies to oversee groundwater basins that are in overdraft — including the Paso Robles sub-basin in North County — and make sure they are being managed sustainably by 2020.

The SGMA does affect the roughly 15,000-acre “fringe area” of the basin that is not controlled by the adjudicated management groups.

Local groups have until June 30 to declare their intent to form a groundwater sustainability agency. After that, they will have until 2022 to collaborate and draft plans for how they will sustainably manage the basin.

Last week, the county Board of Supervisors voted to manage groundwater for any unincorporated and unrepresented areas of the county (although county counsel Rita Neal is reviewing whether that vote violated the Brown Act by not properly notifying the public in advance).

The three South County groups in the “fringe area” — Arroyo Grande, Nipomo Community Services District and Pismo Beach — must now decide whether they want to form independent agencies, or leave that up to the county’s control.

At its meeting Tuesday night, the Arroyo Grande City Council considered three options for managing the 1,240-acre portion of the unadjudicated basin that falls within city limits:

▪  The county would take the lead as a groundwater sustainability agency, and the city could play an advisory role.

▪  The city would form its own agency and coordinate with other groundwater sustainability agencies in the area through a memorandum of agreement.

▪  The city, county and other governing groups form one agency under a joint agreement.

Teresa McClish, Arroyo Grande community development director, recommended Tuesday that the city form an agency because it would ensure Arroyo Grande had a seat at the table for issues pertaining to water use in the basin and could have some control over potential fees to pay for the sustainability plans and studies.

“Even though we are only one small part of the fringe of the area, we would want to consider the ramifications of having a seat at the table and being able to govern our own area within the city limits,” she said.

One of the chief issues with forming a groundwater sustainability agency is the cost.

Based on county estimates, Arroyo Grande could expect to pay about $122,900 to form the agency, and then about $13,250 in operating costs per year, though those numbers are tentative.

“It will impact staff resources, it will cost us money, and it’s for you to carefully weigh the consideration of having that control or giving the reigns, if you will, to the county,” McClish said.

The cost could be folded into the city’s water fund — though that fund is already struggling from less revenue because residents are using less water — and grants, McClish said .

Several council members were wary of taking on the costs of forming an agency, particularly since the area has only four working wells.

“If I’m understanding it correctly, we’d be paying possibly a good portion of money for a couple of wells within our portion,” Councilman Tim Brown said. “That’s it. That’s the extent of the whole thing.”

The city ultimately directed staff to schedule a public hearing to decide on the issue for March 28.

“I think that it’s really important for our most important resource, for us to preserve and maintain the control, especially given that this is our only bite at the apple,” Councilwoman Caren Ray said. “If we don’t take this because we didn’t want to spend $122,000, I fear that years down the road we will be kicking ourselves for not having control.”

The Nipomo Community Services District could take a different tact.

According to General Manager Mario Iglesias, the board of directors will consider the topic Wednesday, and staff has recommended that the district not form a groundwater sustainability agency because the district doesn’t use the 5,410-acre unadjudicated area of the basin in the Nipomo area for water production.

“The district has its hands full providing utility services, and the board will have to decide if they want to take on managing the unused groundwater basin within the fringe areas within NCSD boundaries,” Iglesias said Friday. “Of course, it is a board decision.”

Pismo Beach, which has roughly 470 acres of unadjudicated basin within its city limits, will likely follow suit, City Manager Jim Lewis said Friday.

The city is mostly built out, he said, and has no plans to use the unadjudicated land to pump more water any time in the future. Because of that, staff recommends letting the county be the lead agency for the fringe area.

The Pismo Beach City Council will discuss the recommendation at its next meeting April 4.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie