Board spreads groundwater costs across all taxpayers, could disrupt other agency plans

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

All San Luis Obispo County taxpayers will pay to provide groundwater management plans for property owners in unregulated portions of five severely depleted basins, the Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday. The 3-2 vote threatens to torpedo efforts by multiple groups to form water agencies.

After hearing more than 50 public comments, the board decided to change the county’s strategy on implementing the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act at a cost of $6.1 million to $8.6 million in the next three to five years paid by the county’s general fund.

The decision means property owners who continue with plans to form “groundwater sustainability agencies” will effectively be paying twice, once via fees to manage their GSA and again via the taxes they pay into the general fund.

The state’s groundwater law requires that basins in overdraft — including five in San Luis Obispo County — form agencies by June 30 that will create and implement plans to sustainably manage their aquifers. If GSAs aren’t set up by the deadline, the state can take control, at a cost that could be thousands of dollars to each landowner a year.

Multiple entities are working to form GSAs in San Luis Obispo County’s five basins in overdraft: Paso Robles (and Atascadero sub-basin), Los Osos Valley, San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley, Cuyama Valley and Santa Maria. Residents in those GSAs will pay their agencies’ management costs.

On Tuesday, Supervisors Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong voted to have the county serve as the GSA in areas not represented by other agencies and to pay for planning and implementation, a decision welcomed by some small water users.

That shift in county policy may discourage some GSAs from forming.

“You don’t have to be a genius to see that if you are going to charge somebody for something and you have a competitor that says, ‘Hey, I’ll do something for free,’ it’s going to have an impact,” said Dana Merrill, a vineyard owner who chairs the formation committee of the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District, which is working toward forming a GSA in the Paso Robles sub-basin. (He said landowners would still benefit by opting to join the water district by having a voice in groundwater management.)

“It is unfair to use county revenue collected from Paso Robles’ citizens and used for existing county services to pay for those who chose not to be responsible and pay for the cost of complying with the state-mandated SGMA requirements,” Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said.

“It is poor planning and represents an arbitrary redistribution of resources that is not consistent with sound conservative financial policy.”

County public works director Wade Horton said the board’s decision will impact how agencies work together moving forward.

“Our partner agencies are taking a look at the county’s new change in direction, and they now have an opportunity to decide if they want the Board of Supervisors to represent them in GSAs or if they want to move forward in being a GSA,” Horton said. “That’s the choice that these agencies are going to have to make.”

“If they want to represent themselves, there is a funding requirement to do that,” he continued. “If they want the Board of Supervisors to represent them, under the new direction, existing funds will pay for them in representing that new management structures.”

There was some confusion during Tuesday’s meeting about whether the vote means the county will pay costs to the unrepresented areas just for the planning phase, or if the county will pay for the costs of managing groundwater in perpetuity.

Horton said Wednesday that his understanding of the board’s direction is that the county will pay for the costs associated with the planning phase, through the next three to five years.

“Once groundwater sustainability plans are adopted, if there is a project that needs to be done, a physical project, beneficiaries (groundwater users) would still need to pay for that infrastructure,” Horton said.

“At the end of the (planning) phase, once we know what the (plans) are going to entail, my intent would be to go back to the board and clarify direction going forward,” he said.

San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley basin

The city of San Luis Obispo and the county had been working on an agreement along with other entities to create one GSA to oversee the basin that encompasses about 21.6 square miles.

To pay for a groundwater management plan, a basin-wide election would be held to ask landowners to approve a property assessment.

With the board’s policy change, that collaborative approach is in jeopardy. San Luis Obispo residents don’t have the same option as landowners in unincorporated Edna Valley to forgo an assessment and let the county pay costs.

“(Our) agreement for collaborative management of the basin is now in peril with the change in policy,” San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said.

Harmon attended the board meeting to address her concern, but had to leave for a City Council meeting before her time was called. A spokesperson provided her comments on her behalf.

She said that an assessment vote would be less likely to succeed now that the county said it will pay for the people in the areas it represents.

“The remaining voters, specifically in our San Luis Obispo, would be in effect paying for basin management through both property taxes to the county and additional city assessment or fee to cover the cost of running a GSA,” Harmon said. “This has been viewed by many in our county as inequitable.”

Paso Robles sub-basin

Multiple GSAs are in the process of forming to create one plan to manage the largest aquifer in the area, the Paso Robles basin.

The San Miguel Community Services District, the city of Paso Robles and the Heritage Ranch Community Services District are planning to form their own agencies. A 144,000-acre Shandon-San Juan Water District has been proposed; its 66 landowners have until Tuesday 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.

How the county’s vote will impact those GSAs remains to be seen.

“There is no question about it that price does have an impact,” Merrill said. To join the county GSA may be enticing because “it’s free.”

“But there is more to be gained by a water district forming than just complying with SGMA (state law), and we still think it’s better to have a voice. I think that’s why a lot of people are saying, “I’m paying for it.”

In the last month or so, a few landowners have joined the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District, and a few have quit.

“I think that offer of the county paying weighed heavy on their minds,” Merrill said.