Ordinance to regulate groundwater exports is approved by supervisors

Anyone wanting to export groundwater out of a basin or across San Luis Obispo County lines will now have to obtain a permit, which would only be issued if moving the water would not harm local supplies.

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to approve an ordinance regulating groundwater exports, joining at least 20 other counties across California to do so.

“To me, this is a groundwater protection ordinance,” Supervisor Debbie Arnold said. “I wish we would have changed the title to reflect that.”

The regulations pertain to 22 individual water basins in the county, said Mark Hutchinson, deputy director of public works. The basins 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.

“Right now we’re in such a situation that there’s no water to export,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said. “I think what we’re trying to do … is how do we be more proactive about the future of this county? I think this is the right thing to do.”

In San Luis Obispo County, 57 percent of all domestic water supply needs are met by the use of groundwater, according to the approved ordinance.

Supervisors have been discussing a groundwater exportation ordinance since January 2014, when they asked staff to explore the issue.

An export permit would only be approved if the public works director finds that moving the water would not have any adverse impacts to groundwater resources, such as causing aquifer levels to drop, disrupting the flow of neighboring wells or resulting in seawater intrusion.

The public works director’s decision could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors. Hutchinson estimated that a straightforward project could cost an applicant $20,000 to $25,000, with a more complex project, especially if an environmental impact report is required, easily exceeding $100,000.

County staff made several changes to the ordinance based on comments at a March meeting, including removing an exemption for the county or its flood control and water conservation district. Both would now have to obtain a permit before exporting any groundwater.

A renewal process was also added to the ordinance, since a permit could be valid only for up to a year.

Of a dozen speakers at the board’s Tuesday meeting, nearly all supported the ordinance.

“We need an export ordinance because of the possibility of water leaving our community,” said Greg Grewal of Creston. “The water will leave there if there isn't something to preclude that from happening.”

Sue Luft, chairwoman of the Paso Basin Advisory Committee; Joy Fitzhugh, legislative analyst with the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau; and Susan Harvey, president of North County Watch; also spoke in support.

“Our organization has consistently been against any export of water,” said Jerry Reaugh, chair of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. “We appreciate the county’s work to tighten this ordinance and make exportation of water as difficult as possible.”

Concerns came from the opposite end of the county, however: Ed Eby, a board member of the Nipomo Community Services District, asked supervisors to leave the South County out of the ordinance.

The Nipomo district, which relies on groundwater as its sole source of water, is in the process of building a pipeline from Santa Maria to bring additional water to the community. He cautioned supervisors about approving regulations that could send the wrong message to neighboring cities and counties.

“We don’t want to see Santa Barbara County reciprocate with its own export provision,” Eby said. “I ask you not to risk the water supply of Nipomo with an ordinance that could be provocative to other counties.”

Supervisors were assured by the County Counsel’s Office that the ordinance would not interfere with Nipomo’s project.