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SLO County supervisors to consider more regulations to prevent groundwater overpumping

Agricultural ponds became a contentious issue in San Luis Obispo County after Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees and graded steep hillsides to create a 20-acre-foot reservoir on Sleepy Farm Road, west of Paso Robles.
Agricultural ponds became a contentious issue in San Luis Obispo County after Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees and graded steep hillsides to create a 20-acre-foot reservoir on Sleepy Farm Road, west of Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In an attempt to prevent landowners from overpumping groundwater and sapping neighboring wells in order to fill agricultural ponds — an issue that arose in June when Justin Vineyards and Winery proposed a 6.5 million-gallon reservoir — the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will consider new regulations Tuesday to protect the water supply.

The board will discuss a proposed ordinance that would require anyone who wants to build a reservoir larger than 5 acre-feet — or about 1.6 million gallons — to apply for a grading permit from the county. Applications for smaller agricultural ponds could continue to be reviewed by one of two resource conservation districts.

Agricultural ponds became a contentious issue after Justin Vineyards and Winery — a brand owned by the multinational Wonderful Co.clear-cut thousands of oak trees and graded steep hillsides to create a 20-acre-foot reservoir on Sleepy Farm Road, west of Paso Robles (an acre-foot equals 325,851 gallons).

The county and the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District issued stop work orders, and the Wonderful Co. has since begun to rehabilitate the land and has pledged to donate it to a nonprofit organization. But the debacle sparked a countywide debate over resource management in areas dominated by vineyards and other forms of agriculture.

The measure supervisors are considering Tuesday would replace the urgency ordinance supervisors extended in August, which was put in places to address residents’ concerns about groundwater overpumping. The ordinance also aimed to address fears about “water mining,” or storing groundwater for future sale during times of drought.

Prior to the urgency ordinance, landowners could go through either the county or the RCD to get their permits approved. But supervisors eliminated the alternative review process in the urgency ordinance, citing Justin Vineyards’ grading permit approval as an example of the RCD’s lack of oversight.

The ordinance the board will consider Tuesday is a compromise struck with the agricultural community, which wants to keep the alternative review process in place.

Airlin Singewald, a senior county planner, said landowners favor the alternative review process because they perceive it to be quicker, easier and less expensive than going through the county, which would require a more in-depth analysis of the land.

“The whole idea of (alternative review process) was to be more a carrot than a stick,” Singewald said.

But Devin Best, executive director of the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas RCD, said the alternative review process is no longer quicker, and is actually on par with the county’s approval procedures.

After the controversy caused by the Justin Vineyards ag pond and several others, Best said he no longer thinks the RCD should provide grading permits.

He said the process puts the organization in a regulatory position it’s not equipped for, especially if landowners legally challenge its decisions. In addition, Best said he feels the RCD is getting caught up in Sustainable Groundwater Management Act groundwater politics, which puts him in an uncomfortable spot.

“We just don’t feel that’s the best place for the RCD to be,” he said.

Even so, the county kept the alternative review process in the ordinance after hearing from the Coastal San Luis Resource Conservation District — the county’s other RCD, which handles far fewer grading permit applications than Upper Salinas-Las Tablas — and ag landowners, two groups that want the alternative review process to continue.

Supervisors will consider the ordinance at their meeting Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Board of Supervisors Chambers, 1055 Monterey St. in San Luis Obispo.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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