Who should pay to manage groundwater? SLO County supervisors will revisit the question

As creeks ran dry and parched earth cracked in the midst of the drought, Californians became keenly aware that underground aquifers were not unlimited resources for drinking and irrigation water.

Well levels around San Luis Obispo County dropped; some became tainted with seawater as more groundwater was pumped out than was going into local aquifers. The most visible impact of declining water tables was in the Central Valley, where overdraft in those basins caused land to sink.

The state responded by enacting legislation to do something it had never done before: regulate groundwater to create “a sustainable regime of pumping and recharge.” It’s been 15 months since the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act took effect, and its first major deadline is June 30.

In anticipation, the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will revisit its pivotal decision about whether San Luis Obispo County will use general fund money to manage groundwater for some residents.

That promises to be a heated debate, with opponents saying the plan amounts to some residents actually paying twice — once through fees to cover the cost to manage their own groundwater basin and again in taxes to “subsidize” residents in other basins who won’t pay those fees.

As the county scrambles to clarify its strategy, some local farmers and residents are voting to form new groundwater agencies, and cities are making 11th-hour decisions about whether to be involved — all because local decision-makers must form groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) by June 30 to manage basins in jeopardy, or the state will intervene, taking away local control.

The state law affects 127 basins (of 515) that the state deems medium or high priority. Five are in San Luis Obispo County: Paso Robles (and the Atascadero subbasin), Los Osos Valley, San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley, Cuyama Valley and Santa Maria basins.

Agencies formed by June in 21 basins around the state deemed to be in critical overdraft including Paso Robles, Los Osos and Cuyama must implement management plans by 2020. The other basins have until 2022.

The county’s dynamic role

Then the issue gets complicated.

Groundwater sustainability agencies will govern over the most contentious natural resource in the state. Who is forming them and how they are being formed differs by basin.

While each basin must have an overall management plan, most will have multiple agencies that will need to work together to manage the basin as a whole. The 800-square-mile Paso Robles basin is a prime example: at least five agencies, cities and the county are in the process of forming GSAs so they can have a voice in any future decisions made for the basin overall.

While some cities want to be involved, some don’t; some landowners are forming new water districts to have a seat at the table. Other areas are content to stay out of it, presumably leaving groundwater management up to the county.

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will revisit its controversial 3-2 vote taken March 7 to shoulder the expenses of implementing groundwater plans for those so-called “fringe areas” throughout the county where other GSAs aren’t being created — at a cost of $6 million to $8 million to the general fund over the next three to five years.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who supports the idea, said it is the county’s job to manage water. Opponents, including Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson, said the decision was unfair because county taxpayers — those in a GSA who will pay for groundwater expenses through fees —will end up “subsidizing” residents in the “fringe areas.”

Tuesday’s vote will revisit the supervisors’ March 7 decision to take over groundwater management in those so-called “fringe areas” where no one else will do it. The costs of administrating an agency and performing technical studies to create a management plan are in the millions countywide.

Residents upset about that decision have demanded supervisors revisit the vote. One woman brought her water bill to the board and demanded the county pay it.

Supervisors agreed last year that the county would act as the governing water agency in fringe areas, but only if the affected landowners pay for it. That would happen through a Proposition 218 vote, in which landowners decide whether and how much to assess their property to pay for groundwater studies and administration.

On March 7, Arnold proposed stripping that language from the county’s policy, so the county would pay for all groundwater management costs for the fringe areas out of the general fund. She said she is opposed to raising taxes, water management is the county’s job and she doesn’t want the state to intervene.

“It’s a primary and fundamental responsibility of the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District to manage groundwater resources in the county,” Arnold said. “My interest is to watch out for the long-term water resources.”

She said it’s unfair for landowners with small acreage to pay for regulation that was caused by large irrigators.

“(Say you’ve got) one horse in your backyard, and all of a sudden you’re going to be taxed because your neighbors are overpumping their groundwater?” she said.

Meanwhile, residents outside of “fringe areas” will have to pay for groundwater management costs.

City residents in Arroyo Grande or San Luis Obispo, for example, will pay for the costs to manage their groundwater basins through their water bills.

Water users in management districts proposed for Shandon-San Juan and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston, for example, will pay fees based on acreage and water use. Their tax dollars also indirectly will pay for the county to manage “fringe areas” without an agency. That’s what opponents see as a subsidy.

“It’s profoundly unfair to most county taxpayers to use general funds to manage the groundwater challenges of a few,” Gibson said.

In addition, he said, “if you take that money out of the general fund then we don’t do certain things. We don’t fund sheriff’s deputies, we don’t fund opioid addiction councils.”

How much are we talking about?

The estimated costs to develop and implement groundwater sustainability plans in the basins countywide is $16.3 million in the next three to five years. In the current proposed budget, $5.3 million would come from the Flood Control District, using existing property taxes.

The remaining costs, under the county’s pre-March 7 policy, would be paid for by all water users, including in “fringe areas,” through assessments or increased water bills.

Under the March 7 change, the county general fund would pay the expenses of the landowners in the “fringe areas” at a cost of $6.1 million to $8.6 million. Basin residents not in “fringe areas” would collectively pay about $2.3 million to $4.8 million.

The cost of the “fringe areas” varies greatly by basin. In the Paso Robles basin, for example, the cost to the county general fund for groundwater management of the “fringe area” may be $385,000, or 17 percent of the total cost to manage the Paso basin (the rest of the cost would be covered by the county flood control district, the city of Paso Robles and the newly forming groundwater agencies in Shandon, Creston, etc.)

In Los Osos, the cost to the general fund to manage the fringe area of the groundwater basin could be nearly $2.4 million, or 73 percent of the total $3.2 million cost to manage the basin. (The rest of the cost would be covered by a court-determined management committee composed of water suppliers, the county and the Los Osos Community Services District.)

These are the costs the county general fund might spend to manage “fringe areas” within the basins for the first 3-5 years:

▪  Paso Robles basin: $385,600 to $1,024,250.

▪  Los Osos basin: $2,377,615.

▪  Atascadero subbasin: $12,000 to $150,000.

▪  San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley basin: $811,165 to $2,201,734.

▪  Santa Maria basin: $2,317,615.

▪  Cuyama basin: $212,762 to $531,904.

How agencies are shaping up in basins

As the deadline closes in, potential groundwater sustainability agencies are defining boundaries, negotiating costs and preparing to submit applications to the state to gain authority to manage the county’s most-used aquifers. Agencies will have to work together to form single basinwide plans.

Each basin has its own story.

Paso Robles Subbasin

Multiple agencies are in the process of forming in this 800-square-mile basin that lies in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties. San Miguel Community Service District, the city of Paso Robles, Heritage Ranch Community Service District are forming their own agencies. A 144,000-acre Shandon-San Juan Water District has been proposed; its 66 landowners have until April 11 to return ballots deciding its formation. A 45,000-acre Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District with at least 190 landowners is proposed; a public hearing is scheduled for Thursday . The county is proposing to manage unrepresented areas, and county staff has emphasized the importance of all entities working together to create one management plan.

Los Osos Valley Basin

Like the Santa Maria Valley Basin, this 10-square-mile basin is mostly exempt from the state law because of a court action that resulted in a groundwater management plan. The county can form a GSA for the fringe areas of the basin; a public hearing about that plan is expected to be held at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday. The county may lobby the state to alter the basin boundary lines.

Atascadero Subbasin

The state, in response to a petition, agreed that this area is a separate subbasin and is not in a critical state of overdraft. It’s unknown whether a groundwater plan will be needed. Partners are working together to form one groundwater agency, with representatives from agriculture and environment interests. Those involved include Atascadero, Templeton Community Services District, Santa Ysabel Ranch Mutual Water Company and Santa Margarita Community Services areas.

San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley Basin

The city of San Luis Obispo and the county are working on an agreement to build one GSA to oversee the basin that encompasses about 21.6 square miles. The agency will allow seats on the governing board to different groups to assure agricultural and rural water companies’ interests are at the table.

Santa Maria Valley Basin

Most of the 288-square-mile basin is exempt from the state groundwater law because it is already governed because of a court action. Fringe areas not in the adjudicated portion of the basin may be governed by multiple agencies: Arroyo Grande recently voted to form its own agency. Pismo Beach is scheduled to make its decision Tuesday. San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County are in negotiations to form a single agency. Those groups may lobby the state to alter the boundary of the basin so they don’t have to comply with SGMA requirements.

Cuyama Valley Basin

Four counties share boundary lines in this basin that encompasses about 230 miles (51 in San Luis Obispo County), where the counties are negotiating with a small community services district and a proposed water district to form a single GSA.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan