Supervisors move to restrict groundwater exports

San Luis Obispo County supervisors Tuesday voted to begin drafting an ordinance that would severely restrict the exportation of groundwater from individual water basins or across county lines.

The ordinance is intended to address concerns that a water agency or district could sell its water for use in another county in spite of severe drought conditions in San Luis Obispo County. The vote to bring back an ordinance for formal consideration passed unanimously.

“I can’t see anybody in their right mind trying to export water right now,” said Supervisor Frank Mecham. “As far as I am concerned, we should move ahead on this.”

The ordinance will require that any project to transport water out of a basin or across county lines would require a county permit. The applicant would have to prove that moving the water would not have any adverse environmental impacts, such as causing aquifer levels to drop or disrupting the flow of neighboring wells.

“This isn’t a ban,” said Supervisor Debbie Arnold. “It requires research and a permit.”

The ordinance would pertain to 22 individual water basins in the county, said Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of county Public Works. These range from the small San Carpoforo Valley basin, located on the coast near the Monterey County line, to the sprawling Paso Robles basin, which underlies most of the North County and extends into Monterey County.

Supervisors told Public Works staff that they want the ordinance brought back to them for formal adoptions as soon as possible. No date was set, but Dan Buckshi, county administrator, said it could be back before supervisors as early as a month from now.

More than a dozen members of the public spoke in favor of exportation restrictions. No one spoke against them.

The ordinance would go into effect 30 days after it is adopted. Violators could be fined up to $5,000 a day.

“We oppose the exportation of any water from the Paso Robles groundwater basin,” said Matt Turrentine, a member of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson said he supports the adoption of the ordinance but thinks it is largely symbolic. The county does not have the infrastructure in the form of pipelines and canals to export any significant amount of groundwater, he said.

“I’d like to see the ordinance in place soon to calm anxiety about the emergency in the Paso Robles basin,” he said.