Judge denies request to suspend ordinance prohibiting new Paso Robles basin pumping

Signs line the walls at the Board of Supervisors chambers on Tuesday, Aug. 27, during a hearing on the falling water levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.
Signs line the walls at the Board of Supervisors chambers on Tuesday, Aug. 27, during a hearing on the falling water levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman has tentatively denied a request to suspend the county’s two-year ordinance that prohibits any new pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

“Petitioner has not shown that it is likely to succeed on the merits, nor that the interim harm that petitioner is likely to sustain if the injunction is denied is greater than the resulting harm if the injunction issues,” Tangeman wrote in his ruling.

Tangeman’s tentative ruling denied a request by the group Paso Robles Water Integrity Network for a stay or preliminary injunction on the county’s emergency ordinance, but the case is still liable to be permanently settled by a trial.

The group describes itself as a collection of property owners in the Paso Robles basin concerned with protecting their water rights.

After oral arguments Wednesday, Tangeman took the case under consideration, saying he wanted to reread some of the precedent-setting cases in the matter. He said he planned to have a final ruling within a matter of days.

Sophia Treder, lawyer for the petitioners, said she plans to take the case to trial, no matter how the judge rules on the stay. That process should take about six months to complete. A date for a trial could be set June 30 when Tangeman holds a case management hearing.

The ordinance expires in August 2015. Settling the case at trial could take almost that long. Treder said the effort of going to trial would still be worthwhile because it could result in the ordinance being thrown out in time for next spring’s planting season in the basin.

On Aug. 23 of last year, the Board of Supervisors passed an emergency measure that prohibited the new planting or expansion of crops in the basin, the conversion of dry land farming or grazing land to irrigated agriculture and any new development that would cause more water to be pumped from the basin.

PR-WIN sued the county in an effort to have the ordinance thrown out. The group also filed a motion for the judge to block enforcement of the ordinance until the case could go to trial, which was the subject of Wednesday’s hearing.

In her oral arguments, Treder said the emergency ordinance is overbroad and that property owners in the basin would sustain significant and irreparable harm if the ordinance is allowed to stay in place. She said the county should have first stopped cities and community services districts from pumping from the basin before it restricted pumping by property owners.

“There’s been a whole bunch of steps skipped here,” she said.

The county argued that the ordinance is justified given the crisis in the 505,000-acre water basin east of Paso Robles. Residents and vintners in the basin report significantly dropping water levels and the need to drill expensive, deeper wells to find water.

In her oral arguments Wednesday, Whitney McDonald, deputy county counsel, said the county did not have the time to take preliminary steps before dealing with the crisis. “That’s something that was just not realistic,” she said.

In his tentative ruling, Tangeman said PR-WIN failed to show proof that the ordinance would harm them. He also noted that counties have the authority to regulate groundwater for the public welfare in the midst of a severe drought.

“In the absence of evidence establishing actual harm which will be suffered by petitioner, no balancing can occur and no relief is available,” Tangeman wrote.