Sweeping new countywide water conservation rules are proposed

How groundwater in the Paso Robles and Nipomo Mesa areas is managed could fundamentally change Tuesday.

The county Board of Supervisors will hold what is expected to be a daylong hearing to consider whether to establish a countywide water conservation program. The program’s main feature: that new uses of groundwater in the Paso Robles and Nipomo Mesa areas must be offset by an equal amount of conservation.

Conservation offsets can be attained in several ways, such as plumbing retrofits, turf removal incentives and crop replacements.

The offset requirements for the Paso Robles basin would stay in effect until 2020 when a new state law requires that a comprehensive sustainable groundwater management plan is adopted for the basin.

The deadline for a sustainable water plan for the Nipomo Mesa is not clear because it is part of the Santa Maria groundwater basin, which is in adjudication, said Cheryl Cochran, a county planner. Adjudication is a legal process in which water rights are determined by the courts.

The water conservation program replaces and expands a two-year emergency ordinance for the Paso Robles basin that expired Aug. 27. In addition to expanding the offset requirement to the Nipomo Mesa, the program adds provisions for collecting fees and requires meters on new wells in the two basins so groundwater use can be measured.

The water conservation program comes in the form of a series of county land use amendments. It includes provisions to restrict wasteful water use, such as watering landscaping during the hottest times of the day in rural parts of the county.

“The amendments being considered were developed at the direction of the Board of Supervisors and have been recommended by the Planning Commission,” said Jim Bergman, county planning director.

Supervisors have scheduled three and a half hours for the hearing, which will include a staff presentation and public comment as well as time for deliberations. Past hearings about the water conservation program have drawn dozens of public speakers on both sides of the issue. County staff is expecting another big turnout Tuesday.

“We had five study sessions with the Planning Commission so the public has been involved a lot with the planning process,” Cochran said. “But because this is with the Board of Supervisors we are expecting a lot of public interest.”

Supporters of the water conservation program say it is needed because of four years of extreme drought and more than a decade of dropping aquifer levels in many parts of the county. Critics say the program is unnecessary, ineffective and amounts to little more than government overreach.

If supervisors adopt the water conservation program, it would take effect 30 days later.

Meeting details

The Board of Supervisors meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at 1055 Monterey Street in San Luis Obispo.

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