Paso Robles groundwater basin savings is just a drop in the bucket

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took two small but very controversial steps to end the chronic depletion of the North County’s groundwater.

After a lengthy and often heated hearing, supervisors voted 3-2 to adopt an ordinance that prohibits the creation of new parcels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin and requires that new developments offset whatever water demand they create.

The ordinance is estimated to save only 350 acre-feet of water over the next 20 years from a groundwater basin that safely yields nearly 98,000 acre-feet of water a year. Despite this minimal benefit, a majority of the board said the ordinance was an important first step given the severity of the problem.

Supervisors received many comments from North County residents who are afraid of losing their homes because of consistent lowering of groundwater levels over the past 20 years. Single, rural homes often have the shallowest wells and are at the greatest risk of going dry.

“When we hear about people losing their homes because of their wells going dry, we have to act,” said Supervisor Jim Patterson, who voted for the new ordinance.

Supervisors Frank Mecham and Paul Teixeira dissented, saying the negligible benefit of the new law was outweighed by the political costs of diminishing property rights. Agricultural and vintner groups have threatened to withdraw from cooperative efforts to reduce groundwater pumping if the new ordinance was adopted, Mecham said.

“It’s like shooting a BB gun at an elephant,” Mecham said. “It’s not going to help anything; it’s just going to piss him off.”

Since February 2011, the Paso Robles groundwater basin has been classified as facing overdraft. Some areas of the basin have seen dramatic reductions in groundwater levels while other areas have not, said James Caruso, senior county planner, in his report to supervisors.

The Paso Robles groundwater basin covers 790 square miles, extending from Santa Margarita north into Monterey County and from the Highway 101 corridor east to Shandon.

The ordinance is just one of a series of steps that must be taken to manage underground water in the basin, including conservation and possibly securing new supplies. The issue is difficult because the county’s authority to regulate groundwater is limited, Caruso said.

For example, the county does not have the ability to regulate agriculture, which uses approximately 67 percent of the groundwater in the basin. Many members of the public and letter writers told supervisors that they are frustrated because they say agriculture, particularly the wine industry, is not doing enough to conserve water.

Brad and Mary Nave of Templeton said “there must be some reasonable management of these resources to protect the areas and private landowner from large vineyards being allowed to tap into this resource and pull out unchecked amounts of water, which greatly exceeds their fair share based on per acre basis, when we have a water crisis.”

Caruso noted in his report to the board that agriculture, overall, was taking some steps to conserve. But there was no testimony to the board on that point, and the supervisors did not discuss such actions.