Supervisors to discuss water district, drought's effects

The County Government Center in San Luis Obispo.
The County Government Center in San Luis Obispo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

With San Luis Obispo County in its third year of extreme drought, the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will hold a water summit to discuss whether to begin the process of forming a water district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The summit is scheduled for the board’s afternoon session. It will also include updates on current drought conditions and state and local water legislation.

Supervisors will discuss whether they want to direct county Public Works Department staff to begin the process of petitioning the county Local Agency Formation Commission to form a Paso Robles water basin district. In September, a bill allowing the formation of such a district was signed into law.

The bill allows either the board or 10 percent of the property owners of the basin to petition to form the district. Developing the petition would require several hearings and actions by supervisors including drawing the boundaries of the district and deciding its powers and authorities.

The petition process would cost the county an estimated $350,000, which would be paid for with reserves from the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District, said Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of public works.

Four of the five supervisors have voted in favor of forming a Paso Robles water district. Supervisor Bruce Gibson, chairman of the board, said the board petitioning LAFCO would be the most expedient way of forming the district.

“On an accelerated basis these tasks may be completed in as little as 120 days,” he said. “Consideration of other competing issues related to water supply and the ongoing drought would argue for a time frame of six to nine months.”

The Paso Robles groundwater basin covers 800 square miles and is considered in crisis. Since 1997, water levels in some areas of the basin have gone down by more than 70 feet, causing hundreds of wells to go dry.

Supervisors will also receive an update on drought conditions in the county; they have been classified as “exceptional,” which is the severest drought classification. Rainfall amounts in the county have made it the driest on record this year, said Lisa Howe, an analyst with the county’s Administrative Office.

The two main effects of the drought are loss of agricultural production and increased fire danger. The impact of the drought on agriculture has been uneven, however.

Irrigated agricultural production has remained normal, but farmers are reporting increased salinity in the soil. Hardest hit is the livestock industry.

“It is estimated that 75 percent of livestock have been sold or moved out of the county,” Howe said.

County staff has sent out surveys to local farmers to gain a better picture of the impact of the drought on agriculture. Statewide, the drought is estimated to have cost farmers $2.2 billion and caused the loss of 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs.

Drought conditions can set the stage for destructive wildfires. However, fire activity in the county is below average this year.

From January through July, there were 87 wildfires in the county that burned a total of 89 acres. Since 2007, averages for this same period are 110 wildfires burning 438 acres.

Finally, supervisors will receive an update on recent water legislation. In addition to the Paso Robles water basin bill, a package of three other state water bills were signed into law in September.

These bills, collectively called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, provide a framework for improved management of groundwater by local authorities. It gives local authorities more authority to manage groundwater basins in a sustainable manner and gives the state limited authority to intervene to protect groundwater if local authorities fail to act.