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Arroyo Grande will ‘pay to play’ by forming its own groundwater agency

A map shows the adjudicated and fringe areas of the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin within Arroyo Grande city limits. Arroyo Grande will form a groundwater sustainability agency to manage the pink area to the north of Highway 101.
A map shows the adjudicated and fringe areas of the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin within Arroyo Grande city limits. Arroyo Grande will form a groundwater sustainability agency to manage the pink area to the north of Highway 101.

Rather than letting the county take the lead in managing its 1,217-acre fringe area of the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin — and risk having little to no control over future fees for regulation of that area — Arroyo Grande is going to “pay to play” as a state-recognized groundwater sustainability agency.

Its spot on the game board isn’t going to be cheap: Based on preliminary estimates, the city could pay about $135,000 just to form the GSA, and then pay $13,250 per year thereafter in operating costs — costs that will have to be paid for through the city’s water fund and a potential water rate increase in the future.

“I’m very concerned either way, whether we go with the county or our own GSA, for potential rate increases,” City Councilwoman Barbara Harmon said Tuesday. “It may be inevitable, but I know we’ll do our best to get the information and be creative in regards to that.”

The Arroyo Grande City Council unanimously approved a resolution Tuesday directing city staff to begin the state application process to become a GSA, and appropriating $15,000 from its water fund to pay for a consultant to assist with the application.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires groundwater sustainability agencies to oversee groundwater basins that are in overdraft and make sure they are being managed sustainably by 2020.

It’s frustrating because I think we are spending money that’s going to not do a whole lot in the end.

Tim Brown, Arroyo Grande City Council

Though it does not apply to the majority of the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin — much of that basin is already monitored through court-formed management groups set up following decades of water rights litigation in the area — SGMA does affect the roughly 15,000-acre “fringe area” of the basin that is not controlled by the adjudicated management groups.

Arroyo Grande’s portion of the basin is on the north side of Highway 101. Much of the area south of the highway is part of the adjudicated area.

The county has said it intends to manage any unrepresented portions of the six local groundwater basins, including the Santa Maria basin fringe area.

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

Arroyo Grande council members were at first hesitant to embark on the costly endeavor of forming a GSA for its 1,217-acre area of land, which includes only four working wells. But because the way the county plans to pay to manage the fringe areas is still in question (the county Board of Supervisors said it wouldn’t charge property owners to pay for management, but that vote has been contested), the council decided it was more important to ensure local control now, rather than risk uncontrolled fees to city residents down the road.

“It’s frustrating because I think we are spending money that’s going to not do a whole lot in the end,” Councilman Tim Brown said. “It’s another expense I don’t think we need, but it is the reality of the situation, and I’ve been brought to the idea that we need to have local control.”

Forming a GSA will also prevent the city from having to seek permission from the county in the future if the council decides it wants to pump water from the fringe area.

To give up a third of A.G.’s basin, that is a little bit scary, because who knows 20 years from now what we might want to do?

Kristen Barneich, Arroyo Grande City Council

“To give up a third of A.G.’s basin, that is a little bit scary, because who knows 20 years from now what we might want to do?” Councilwoman Kristen Barneich said. “So I would rather preserve that local control and have us be in charge of what we are going to do as far as pay for it, and not have the county have a say in that.”

Arroyo Grande could be the only South County city to form a GSA. The Nipomo Community Services District Board of Directors voted March 22 to let the county manage its portion of the unadjudicated basin, while Pismo Beach is expected to consider doing the same at its meeting Tuesday.

Grover Beach and Oceano both also draw water from the Santa Maria basin, but their portions fall within the adjudicated portion of the basin that is exempt from SGMA regulations.

Once the basin is finalized as a GSA, the Arroyo Grande City Council will work with San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties to begin drafting a groundwater sustainability plan that will outline how the trio of groups plan to make the fringe areas of the basin sustainable.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

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