At workshop on Paso Robles basin, experts urge locals to take the reins

The green of the Links Golf Course at Paso Robles and a vineyard contrasts with the brown surrounding homes in the Jardine Road area east of the Paso Robles airport.
The green of the Links Golf Course at Paso Robles and a vineyard contrasts with the brown surrounding homes in the Jardine Road area east of the Paso Robles airport. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Control your destiny or someone else will.

That was the message two groundwater management experts gave Thursday to the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission, which is in the beginning phases of processing an application to form a management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The commission held a three-hour workshop on the Paso Robles basin that featured presentations by Erik Ekdahl, program manager for the State Water Resources Control Board’s groundwater management unit, and Gerhardt Hubner, manager of the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency in Ventura County.

Both men urged North County residents and government officials to take the lead in forming a locally controlled groundwater management agency for the Paso Robles basin. A new state law, called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requires that troubled basins, like the Paso Robles basin, have a management agency in place by 2017 and adopt a management plan by 2020.

Such a management plan is likely to require meters on wells and pumpers to pay a per-acre-foot fee. Additional charges to raise money to pay for supplemental water projects are also possible.

State water officials have designated the Paso Robles basin as having a high-priority need for management. Aquifer levels in many areas of the basin have dropped by 70 feet in recent decades and could plunge another 70 feet by 2040.

Local management can come in the form of a water district, like the one being considered by LAFCO, or via the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors acting as the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District. If locals don’t manage the basin, the state will step in and manage it for them, Eckdahl said.

State management of the Paso Robles basin is likely to be more expensive, less efficient and lack local control. The state would likely require well metering and charge a per-acre-foot fee to pump water from the basin.

“We’ll need to recover our costs related to acting as a backstop,” Ekdahl said. “We believe that would be more costly than local management.”

The county has submitted an application with LAFCO to form a management district for the Paso Robles basin that would have a nine-member board of directors consisting of a combination of owners of various sized land parcels in the basin and at-large members.

David Church, LAFCO executive director, said commission staff will finish its review of the application by June 25 and issue staff reports in July. The commission will then hold two public hearings on the application.

The first is scheduled for 5:30 to 10 p.m. Aug. 20 at the Paso Robles Event Center. The second will be at 9 a.m. Sept. 17 at the County Government Center in San Luis Obispo.

Once LAFCO has processed the application, it will be up to voters in the Paso basin to approve the formation of the district. Those elections could be held as early as March and will consist of three separate ballot questions — one to approve the district, one to authorize the collection of the fees or taxes necessary to generate the estimated $1 million annual operating budget of the district and the last to elect the nine directors.

Hubner was asked to speak to LAFCO because his district in Ventura County was used as a model for developing the legislation that provides for the Paso Robles basin water district. The powers and authorities the Ventura district uses to manage its basin have been updated by the California Legislature several times and are considered the most modern.

In addition to his recommendation to form a local district, Hubner said local officials should begin collecting well-usage data in the Paso Robles basin as soon as possible. That information will form the basis for limiting pumping to sustainable levels.

“You cannot manage what you cannot measure,” Hubner said.

He summed up by recommending that managers of the district have the political will to make tough, often controversial decisions about how the basin and its aquifers are managed. Without that political will, aquifer levels in the basin will continue to fall, he said.

Hubner cited his own Fox Canyon district as an example of what can go wrong when aquifers are not aggressively managed. The district needs about $1 million annually but only raises about $750,000 through pumping fees, and the basin’s safe yield is 100,000 acre-feet per year but current pumping is 150,000 acre-feet per year.

In order to correct these problems, the district is considering taking the politically unpopular steps of raising pumping fees from $6 per acre-foot to $10 to $15 per acre-foot. It also is considering enacting a new ordinance that allows the district to reduce basinwide pumping by 20 percent, Hubner said.