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State could step in to manage Paso Robles groundwater basin

Like someone warning of the Sword of Damocles hanging overhead, Supervisor Frank Mecham has repeatedly told residents of the Paso Robles groundwater basin that they need to find consensus on how to manage the basin before state water officials lose patience and take control.

“I’ve said this many times,” Mecham said. “If we don’t do something about managing the basin, the state will step in and do it for us.”

That possibility — which Mecham has repeated at every discussion of the Paso Robles basin — is rapidly becoming a certainty. Two nearly identical bills are working their way through the state Legislature that would dramatically overhaul how California manages its groundwater.

They would require that sustainable groundwater management plans be developed by 2020 for 126 groundwater basins in the state classified as high or medium priority. The state Department of Water Resources has already given the Paso Robles basin a high priority.

“The state would act as a backstop,” explained Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation, a privately funded group whose goal is to make the state’s water supply sustainable. “If nobody steps forward to develop a basin plan, the state can step in.

“Similarly, if someone steps forward but doesn’t make adequate progress or meet certain milestones, the state can step in.”

The bills, as currently written, would allow the State Water Resources Control Board to hire a third party to develop and implement a water management plan if no local group steps forward to manage a water basin in crisis in a timely fashion.

The bills are Senate Bill 1168 by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills, and Assembly Bill 1739 by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento.

Each bill has moved on to the opposite house of the Legislature where they are expected to be amended to make them identical and move on to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature, Snow said.

The Legislature will reconvene from its summer recess Aug. 4 and has until the end of August to pass any bill. The governor then has until the end of September to sign or veto bills sent to him by the Legislature.

Snow and county Supervisors Mecham and Bruce Gibson expect the reconciled bill to be signed into law.

In his California Water Action Plan published in January, Gov. Brown made addressing the state’s historic drought and lack of groundwater management a high priority. He promised to give local agencies the authority they need to protect a basin from overpumping. Brown’s plan also echoes the need for possible state intervention.

“When a basin is at risk of permanent damage, and local and regional entities have not made sufficient progress to correct the problem, the state should protect the basin and its users until an adequate local program is in place,” the governor’s plan states.

Gibson said he hopes the legislation and the governor’s proclamations will provide the motivation necessary to get the Board of Supervisors and the North County residents to agree on a strategy for managing the groundwater basin that many agree is in crisis.

Water levels in the basin, particularly immediately east of Paso Robles, have dropped more than 70 feet since 1997. Residents and farmers there report needing to drill deeper wells to keep the water flowing. Some rural residents have to have water trucked in.

“I see these bills as a positive direction for getting a solution in place,” Gibson said. “To date, our board has not demonstrated the action that I would like to see on managing the basin.”

At recent hearings, supervisors have failed to agree on whether they support another bill in the state Legislature — AB 2453 by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo.

That bill would create a water management district for the Paso Robles basin with an elected board of directors consisting of a mixture of landowners and residents of the basin.

However, the bill has been heavily amended, making it much more complex. Two North County water groups, which originally proposed the bill, have since withdrawn their support.

Achadjian’s bill remains in the Legislature, but its fate is uncertain because the lawmaker is waiting for direction from county supervisors on whether he should withdraw it or not.

There are several ways a water basin management plan could be developed for the Paso Robles basin. One option is to form a local water district, such as the one outlined in Achadjian’s bill.

Another is to have the Board of Supervisors manage the basin under the auspices of its Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

In spite of the bills’ provisions for state intervention, their use is intended to be a last resort, Snow said.

“The goal is to provide incentives and resources for local agencies to get the job done themselves,” he said. “For the state to step in is a failure and not a good thing.”

Help to local agencies to enact a groundwater management plan could come in several forms. Gov. Brown’s budget calls for $1.9 million to be allocated to the State Water Resources Control Board to hire 10 groundwater experts who could be made available to local agencies struggling to develop a basin management plan.

“The 10 water experts would only come into a basin when asked or if they could help in getting the management plan in place,” Mecham said.

More help could be on the way if in November voters pass a water-bond act that the Legislature put on the ballot allocating as much as $11.1 billion for water improvement projects including $1 billion for groundwater projects.

California is the last state in the union without an enforceable set of statewide groundwater management standards. The Pavley and Dickinson bills as well as the governor’s water action plan are a concerted effort to correct that.

“California faces a groundwater crisis,” Pavley said. “The cumulative overdraft of our groundwater basins is equivalent to the entire amount of water stored in Lake Tahoe.”

The crisis is particularly acute on the Central Coast. While groundwater is used to meet 40 percent of the state’s water needs, it comprises 86 percent of the water used in this region, a percentage much higher than any other part of the state, according to the Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The Pavley-Dickinson bills also have their critics, including the California Farm Bureau Federation, which said the bill will create a rush to meet an arbitrary deadline.

“This measure will have huge long-term economic impacts on farms, the state and local economies and county tax roles, with a very real potential to devalue land, impact farms’ and businesses’ viability and, in turn, impact jobs,” the Farm Bureau said in a statement.

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