Paso Robles aims to relieve its water pressures

A county committee tasked with stabilizing the dwindling Paso Robles groundwater basin took the first tentative steps Thursday toward forming a special groundwater management district.

The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Blue Ribbon Steering Committee voted unanimously to recommend that the county Board of Supervisors begin the process of forming a special district that could have the authority to manage water use in the basin via monitoring of water use and restrictions on consumption.

“Ultimately, it will have to have teeth,” said Sue Luft of the El Pomar area who sat on a solutions subcommittee to the larger group. Her subcommittee said the formation of a special district is crucial in the effort to stop precipitous declines in groundwater levels throughout much of the North County. Water levels in some areas of the basin have dropped by 80 feet or more in the past 15 years.

“Without management of the groundwater basin, well levels will likely continue to decline,” the solutions subcommittee wrote in a report. “Adoption of any short-term or long-term solutions requires that a management structure be in place to enable financing and implementation of solutions.”

The recommendation sparked a lively discussion between Joy Fitzhugh of the county Farm Bureau Federation and other members of the steering committee. Fitzhugh wanted supervisors to study the feasibility of a water district first rather than moving right ahead with the formation of the district.

The farm community is liable to interpret the formation of a water district as a cover for adjudication, a process in which courts impose water management on users, Fitzhugh said. This drew angry responses from members of the audience who said the county needs to move ahead decisively to solve the water crisis before more wells go dry.

“You have to have someone in control,” said George Tracy of Independence Ranch near San Miguel. “It has to have some teeth to get people to understand that water is a finite resource that affects other people.”

The committee is scheduled to take its recommendation to the Board of Supervisors on May 7. At that time, the committee will ask the supervisors to provide technical and legal advice and coordination to enable formation of the district.

The blue ribbon committee is also examining a range of other potential solutions to the groundwater crisis. These include conservation, obtaining new water sources and recycling.

Also at the meeting, several wine industry representatives announced that they have formed a group of their own that will look into forming a water district on a parallel track to the blue ribbon steering committee. The new group is called the Paso Robles Alliance for Groundwater Solutions.