Worried state will step in, supervisors decide county will pay to manage some groundwater areas

An electric powered well near Highway 41 near Shandon services a vineyard.
An electric powered well near Highway 41 near Shandon services a vineyard. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In a repeat of a vote taken three weeks ago, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors once again decided after a tense debate to pay for groundwater management in some unincorporated areas, at a cost of $6.1 million to $8.6 million paid by the county general fund.

The vote was 3-2, with supporters saying the county needed to step up and pay to prevent the state from taking over groundwater management, while opponents said the policy means some residents will be forced to subsidize others.

“It’s a money grab,” Supervisor Adam Hill said. “It’s a shame.”

“I stand by the policy change that I proposed,” said Supervisor Debbie Arnold. “Landowners pay for basic services provided by the county, and paying for a plan is a basic service.”

At issue is the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which set a June 30 deadline for the 127 groundwater basins in overdraft statewide to create agencies that will regulate groundwater use. That includes five basins in San Luis Obispo County — Paso Robles (and Atascadero subbasin), Los Osos Valley, San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley, Cuyama Valley and Santa Maria.

If a “groundwater sustainability agency” (GSA) isn’t set up in a basin in overdraft by June 30, the state can intervene and take away local control of that groundwater.

Faced with that threat, Supervisors Lynn Compton and John Peschong voted with Arnold.

“I do not want the state of California to come in and take over the water basin,” Peschong said.

With knowledge that groundwater was going to be regulated, several entities in the five county basins are in the process of forming GSAs. Those include cities, community service districts and some new agencies being being created by worried landowners. Most of the basins have several of these entities, which will work together to create a single overall plan to manage their aquifer.

Residents in areas managed by a GSA will pay for the costs of groundwater planning and implementation — while basin residents outside those coverage areas, in so-called “fringe areas,” will now be managed by the county and will not have to pay.

“The inequality is profound,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who joinws Hill to vote against the new policy.

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 county Flood Control District, using existing property taxes.

The county general fund will pay the expenses of the landowners in the “fringe areas” at a cost of $6.1 million to $8.6 million. Compton said the policy will relieve Los Osos area fringe residents from expenses that could be as high as $10,000 a year.

Basin residents not in “fringe areas” will still collectively pay about $2.3 million to $4.8 million.

Opponents said Arnold’s plan amounts to some residents paying twice — once through fees to cover the cost of their GSA and again in taxes to “subsidize” residents in basins covered by the general fund.

“It’s unfair to use county revenues collected...to pay for those who chose not to be responsible to pay for SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) compliance,” said Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin, one of dozens who offered public comment. “It is poor planning and represents a redistribution of resources that is not consistent with sound conservative fiscal planning.”

Some speakers expressed support for the policy change.

“SGMA is going to ultimately cover every basin in this county...I believe every citizen will be affected and benefit from the board policy decision,” said Gwen Pelfrey, a member of the Templeton CSD. “For Paso basin, there are a number of de minimus users...they do not need additional fees put on them.”

The vote was a repeat of a vote taken March 7 that changed county policy for who would pay for groundwater management. Supervisors voted to rehear the issue following public outcry that some felt the public had been left out of the process.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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