Ballot measure would put ‘bullet-proof’ ban on water exports from SLO County basins

A vineyard east of Paso Robles near Highway 46.
A vineyard east of Paso Robles near Highway 46. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Fearful that new water districts in an over-tapped water basin in North County want to drain underground water and export it for profit, a group of residents have proposed a countywide ballot measure that would ban exports and transfers between basins and outside of the county.

“It’s to protect what’s ours in our area, in our county, and we don’t see any reason why anyone in our county would not be for it,” said Greg Grewal of Creston.

Dana Merrill, director of the recently formed Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District, said the fears are unfounded. He’s not opposed to the ban, but says it’s unnecessary because the districts are already prohibited from transferring or exporting water.

“Nobody wants to export water. Nobody’s trying to export water, and there is no water to export. They’re addressing a problem that doesn’t exist,” Merrill said. “We’re farmers here. We need the water.”

“I would rather work on trying to get this water table stabilized,” he added.

Grewal, along with Frederick Hoey of Paso Robles and former state assemblywoman Andrea Seastrand of Arroyo Grande announced their intention to work toward the measure in a filing with San Luis Obispo County on Dec. 12. As a result, County Counsel Rita Neal will create official language for a petition so proponents can begin collecting the 8,580 signatures in an effort to place the measure on a ballot in the November election.

While the measure would ban groundwater exports countywide, language in the filing makes clear that the initiative is motivated by concerns about the purpose of the Shandon San Juan and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston water districts.

Those districts recently formed by water users within the Paso Robles Area Basin with plans to participate in a state-mandated process to sustainably manage groundwater.

Proponents said they formed the group to have a seat at the table in management plans and to stabilize and maintain water levels through smart planning.

But opposition to the water districts has for years been fanned by fears that the intention is “Big Ag” will bank water and sell it out of the area. The filing with the county says, “the apparent principal interest of these landowners is the control of their water resources through private water districts for sale and/or export outside the water districts and potentially outside of San Luis Obispo County.”

“That’s not true,” said Willy Cunha, a director of the Shandon San Juan Water District. “It would be so against logic and economic interest of any farmers here.”

Still, he said, “If they write a good ban, I’d sign it in a heartbeat. I think everybody’s for that.”

Already, there are regulations that address the issue of exporting groundwater.

As a condition of formation under the Local Agency Formation Commission, the newly formed water districts are “prohibited from exporting, transferring, or moving water underlying the water district (including groundwater pumped into an above ground storage facility) to areas outside of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.”

Everybody agreed with the prohibition on export when the language was written, including proponents of the water district, according to LAFCO Executive Officer David Church.

The county Board of Supervisors in 2015 adopted a groundwater export ordinance that does not ban export of water, but it sets up a permit process and standards high enough that “it would be hard to get over the hump,” Deputy Director of Public Works Mark Hutchinson said.

Grewal acknowledged these restraints, but said, “Those conditions only depend on who is in power at time. You can always go to LAFCO and get conditions changed. You can go to the supervisors and take a new vote.”

A ballot measure, if passed, would require a public vote to overturn.

“Let’s make it bullet proof,” Grewal said.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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