Wineries, ranchers, governments, residents and industry in the North County are slurping so much water out of the ground so quickly that the area could reach a point where it is losing more water than man and nature can re-supply, the county says.
The Board of Supervisors two weeks ago slapped a Level of Severity III designation on the Paso Robles groundwater basin, a categorization that serves as a warning that the area could go into overdraft.
The Paso Robles basin covers a 790-square-mile area from Garden Farms near Atascadero north to San Ardo in Monterey County.
The county has similar declarations in place for Nipomo and Los Osos.
Although each of the three situations is unique, all are premised on a question that a man who owns a home must ask himself — am I spending more money than I am taking in? In this case, the county is asking the question about its water.
The vote followed a four-hour discussion that slogged through the vast complexities of local water and land-use law, as well as Byzantine state water codes.
The hearing followed years of studies by the county Planning and Building Department and was girded by a 350-page staff report, one of many research documents generated in response to the North County’s water problems.
The practical effect is relatively limited now, but declaring that a water basin is in LOS III allows planners to come back with regulations on land use and water that could impact building in the affected area. It also acknowledges that a problem exists.
An irony of the decision is that the county has no jurisdiction over one of the North County’s largest water users — the imbibers with the largest straws, to use the drinking metaphor — which are the wine and agriculture/ranching industries. Those are regulated under state water codes.
They — along with cities, which also drink a large portion of the county’s water supply — say they are making strenuous efforts to minimize their use of water, which all acknowledge to be a precious and declining commodity.
During the hearing, many speakers opposed the LOS III designation. They called it premature and said it needs more study. They warned the label could cause bank loans to dry up for farmers and ranchers, ultimately threatening the county’s lucrative wine tourism industry by sending potential investors elsewhere.
But those arguments held little sway among the board majority and others who had studied the issue.
“We’re looking at protecting a resource that doesn’t come easily,” board Chairman Adam Hill said. “You can’t pretend it (the water problem) is not there.”
Supervisor Bruce Gibson added that “very many more wells are dropping than are rising. We have a basin in decline.”
Nipomo’s Mike Winn, chairman of the county’s water resources advisory committee, which supported the LOS III designation, said it is time “to admit it and deal with it.” Ignoring the fact of a looming water shortage creates a greater financial risk, Winn said.
As to the calls for further study, Supervisor Jim Patterson said, “We’ve been talking about this issue for 15 years,” adding that the conclusions about water have come from “very competent hydrogeologists.”
North County Supervisor Frank Mecham balked at the LOS III designation. He said he worried that it might be “the camel’s nose under the tent” and lead to stringent restrictions down the line.
Under an LOS III designation, the county could declare a moratorium on building in the affected area, but supervisors went out of their way to assure residents that they do not intend to take that step.
In an e-mail exchange with The Tribune, county planner James Caruso acknowledged that “the county’s authority over water is highly constrained by the California Constitution.’’
“If you own property over a basin, the Constitution gives you the right to pump water with no limit as long as you put the water to a ‘beneficial use’ (sometimes known as ‘the beneficial use or reasonable use’ doctrine),” he wrote.
“Cities and water districts that retail water to their customers have control over that water” through rates, he continued. “The county does not. The county has land-use authority in the unincorporated areas, but not in the cities. Furthermore, that land-use authority is generally limited to new development, which does not include crop production.”
Nonetheless, he added, the county must do what it can, especially with people who fall under nobody’s formal jurisdiction and have no restraints on how much water they take.
“The real story here,” Caruso wrote, “is how difficult it is for a local government such as our county to do something about a declining groundwater basin when the users are so diverse, the Constitution limits the county’s authority, other local governments have an important role to play in the resource discussion, and the entire subject is so bound up in economics.
“Groundwater is a common good,” he wrote.
In their decision, county supervisors carved out a separate designation — Level of Severity I — for a geologically separate part of the basin known as the Atascadero sub-basin. An LOS I designation goes to “a water resource when increasing water demand projected over nine years equals or exceeds the estimated dependable supply,” according to a county staff report.
The board will meet March 22 to discuss where it should go from here.