A temporary emergency ordinance in place since 2013 to manage the dwindling Paso Robles groundwater basin will expire without a replacement program in August, San Luis Obispo County supervisors decided Tuesday.
In a 3-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors voted not to pursue a countywide water offset law, which would have applied to the three groundwater basins in overdraft: Paso Robles, Los Osos and the Nipomo Mesa.
The vote came during a wide-ranging discussion by supervisors on water issues. The county staff had proposed a new ordinance that would ban new agricultural plantings in areas with dwindling groundwater basins unless it is offset by an equal amount of water conservation.
While supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson favored the program, supervisors Frank Mecham, Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton voted against developing the offset program.
Mecham voted in 2013 for the emergency ordinance, which banned for two years any new housing development or expansion of irrigated agriculture unless the water usage was offset by an equal amount of conservation.
On Tuesday, he said he now wants a water conservation incentive program instead. He said he did not have the idea of an incentive program very well developed yet but that it might involve phasing in of crops.
Compton said she feared that a permanent ordinance would have unintended consequences.
“A lot of negative consequences can come from new regulation,” she said.
Arnold said she would like to have staff come up with maps showing where it would be appropriate to irrigate, based on how the basin is faring in particular areas.
“I want to see what is available and what we are going to restrict,” she said.
Gibson said it would be a fundamental mistake not to have a farm water offset program. Without one, there will be a rush to drill new wells when the two-year emergency ordinance expires, he said.
“You are going to have people punching holes in the ground like mosquitoes on a Minnesota camper,” he said.
Several representatives of the agricultural and wine industries spoke against a permanent ordinance.
“Sometimes restrictions are imposed that are not in the best interest of the land,” said Patricia Wilmore with the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “Our industry is water-efficient.”
No one spoke in favor of a permanent ordinance. However, supervisors did get some letters in favor of it that echoed Gibson’s concerns.
“If there is no ordinance in place when the urgency ordinance expires, the rush to plant will be like nothing this area has ever seen,” wrote Jan Seals, a rural Paso Robles resident. Seals wrote that her 500-foot well has declined by 82 feet in 12 years.
Seals was one of several people who wrote to the supervisors saying they would not participate in the hearing because Board of Supervisor meetings have become too vitriolic.
Supervisors approved the emergency ordinance on Aug. 27, 2013, and then quickly extended it to the maximum two years, to halt increased pumping in the Paso Robles basin until a permanent plan could be developed.
Since 1997, water levels have dropped more than 70 feet in many areas of the basin and hundreds of wells have run dry.
Separate from Tuesday’s vote, county staff is preparing an application for the Local Agency Formation Commission to create an independent water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The application should be ready by April.
The commission will then hold a series of hearings to decide whether to form the district or not, and to define its boundaries, authorities and method for generating operating revenue.
An agency must be in place by July 2017 to manage the Paso Robles basin, according to state law.