County looking to bolster Paso Robles groundwater basin

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.
Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County supervisors Tuesday authorized spending more than $700,000 to explore ways to create more water sources for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The bulk of the money will go to Carollo Engineers Inc., a multistate water engineering firm headquartered in Walnut Creek, to prepare a feasibility study looking at what supplementary water sources are available.

Supervisors also directed staff to begin drafting an ordinance that would ban exporting water from the county. The ordinance is in response to fears that a proposed water management district for the Paso Robles basin or the county could sell water outside the county.

Supervisors have repeatedly said there are no plans to export water because the basin needs all the water it can get. They said a ban would be a good way to settle the question once and for all.

“I have no underlying motive in all of this other than making sure the growers and the residents in the basin have the water they need to continue doing what they are doing,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said.

The Paso Robles groundwater basin is facing a crisis of falling water levels that has caused some wells in the basin to go dry and has forced many rural residents and vineyards to drill costly new, deeper wells.

Since 1997, water levels have dropped from 2 to 6 feet a year, depending on location.

Tuesday’s wide-ranging discussion took 2 1⁄2 hours to complete due to the complexity of the issue. Staff requested action on six separate items.

In its decision to move forward with a water feasibility study, the board limited the initial study to examining additional water sources from the State Water Project, the Nacimiento pipeline project and recycled water.

Both pipelines have unallocated water that the county could purchase or obtain through exchanges with other agencies.

The study will look at the costs associated with developing these sources, how the water could be delivered where needed and timelines for implementation. It will take a year to a year and half to complete the studies, said Paavo Ogren, county public works director.

The board deferred studying developing additional water sources in the Salinas River corridor because the county has requested that the U.S Bureau of Reclamation do that portion of the study. The county expects to learn if that application is approved in about six months, said Courtney Howard, senior water resources engineer with the county.

If the Bureau of Reclamation does not perform the Salinas River study, supervisors could add that to the county’s feasibility study at a later date. If that happens, the overall cost of the study will increase to more than $1.5 million.

Also on Tuesday, supervisors created a new Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Advisory Committee to replace the basin’s current Blue Ribbon Committee that will be disbanded in March. The Blue Ribbon Committee is a temporary body that is limited by state law to two years.

The new committee will be the supervisors’ main advisory body on matters related to the Paso Robles water basin. It will consist of 23 members with 14 members coming from agencies and organizations in the basin as well as nine at-large members representing rural residents and environmental and agricultural interests.

Many of the Blue Ribbon Committee members are expected to apply for seats on the new panel.