Supervisors reject Paso Robles basin water offset plan

Saying there are too many uncertainties, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors unanimously rejected a detailed agricultural water offset plan for the Paso Robles groundwater basin but directed planning staff to continue granting offsets on a case-by-case basis.

“This program is a good first step, but I don’t think it is ready for prime time,” said Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes much of the basin.

The offset plan was developed as part of the county’s two-year emergency water conservation ordinance that bans new groundwater pumping in the basin unless it is offset by an equal amount of conservation. The emergency ban was adopted in August 2013.

Earlier this year, the supervisors authorized the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District of Templeton to craft an offset program at a cost of $158,000.

That program, rejected by supervisors Tuesday, would have established detailed rules for calculating which crops could be substituted for others in order to save water. The water that is saved could then be used to irrigate other new crops such as vineyards as long as there is no net increase in pumping from the basin.

All of the supervisors praised the job done by the Resource Conservation District in devising the program. But they said they wanted to wait until they have the results of pending water studies of the basin as well as requirements that will be imposed on the basin as a result of several new groundwater management laws recently passed by the state Legislature.

“We certainly have to do a full legal analysis,” said Supervisor Caren Ray. “I don’t see how we can do this today or even on a temporary basis.”

The most significant new law is one that requires local governments to develop sustainable water management plans for aquifers in crisis such as the Paso Robles basin. Another bill was passed allowing the formation of a water management district specifically for the Paso basin.

James Caruso, county senior planner, said the county has already approved about 10 of the simplest kinds of offsets but was hoping to get more guidance on how to process more complex ones.

The simplest offset is one that replaces a crop that uses a lot of water for one that uses less, on the same parcel drawing from the same irrigation well. It becomes much more complicated to devise offsets for multiple parcels, particularly if they are not adjacent, Caruso said.

Without the detailed guidance contained in the offset program, county planners will “continue to muddle through,” issuing the simplest offsets on a case-by-case basis, said Kami Griffin, assistant planning director.

The urgency ordinance will expire in August 2015, but supervisors have directed staff to come up with a permanent ordinance that will require offsets for all the basins in the county with falling water levels. These include basins in Paso Robles, Los Osos and Nipomo.

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