Voters send Paso Robles water district back to SLO County supervisors

An sign opposing the Paso Robles groundwater basin district is posted on a fence in the 1400 block of San Marcos Road.
An sign opposing the Paso Robles groundwater basin district is posted on a fence in the 1400 block of San Marcos Road. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Now that voters in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have overwhelmingly rejected the formation of a water management district, it is up to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to decide whether it wants to manage the basin or cede responsibility to state water authorities.

No hearing has been set for supervisors to discuss the issue, and they said they will not be in a hurry to make any decisions. They have a little more than a year to decide.

The state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires basins that are in critical overdraft, such as the Paso Robles basin, to have a sustainable groundwater agency in place by June 30, 2017. That agency then has until 2020 to adopt a sustainable groundwater management plan.

Overdraft occurs when more water is pumped out of a groundwater basin than can be naturally replenished by rainfall. Many areas of the sprawling Paso Robles water basin have seen aquifers drop by 100 feet or more in recent years, resulting in some wells going dry and forcing homeowners to drill new, deeper wells.

In Tuesday’s election, 78 percent of voters rejected a parcel tax called Measure A, which would have generated nearly $1 million annually for five years to manage the basin. County Public Works officials have calculated that the county would need a similar amount of money to manage the basin.

Also on Tuesday, property owners voted by an overwhelming 74 percent to reject Measure B, which would have given approval to form the district. Both measures needed approval by voters for the district to have been formed. The results are preliminary; final results will be tabulated Friday.

Supporters of the district said they were disappointed at the outcome and were surprised that it was rejected by such wide margins.

“I am afraid that a lot of people listened to misinformation,” said Sue Luft, a member of PRO Water Equity, a Templeton-based group of basin residents who worked to form the district. “I think we are now most likely looking at state management of the basin.”

Members of the group Yes on Measures A & B said they put the measures on the ballot to give stakeholders in the basin an opportunity to work together to locally manage the groundwater basin. They said they ran a positive campaign that focused on a compromise solution.

“The responsibility for managing the Paso Robles basin has been squarely placed by the voters on the shoulders of the Board of Supervisors in San Luis Obispo,” the group said in a prepared statement. “We hope that they will rise to the challenge of managing the Paso Robles basin to preserve our water resources, which are central to our way of life in North County.”

County Administrator Dan Buckshi and Supervisors Frank Mecham and Bruce Gibson said the county should not rush to make a decision on management of the basin. They want to give basin residents some time to come up with other possible management solutions.

“Right now, I think we need to take a break, step back and figure out if there are any other options or avenues,” Mecham said. “What those might be, I’m not really quite sure at this point.”

The county is already managing the basin to some extent. County supervisors have passed a land-use ordinance that requires that any new pumping from the Paso Robles basin be offset by an equal amount of conservation. Supervisors also passed an ordinance banning export of water from the basin.

At their April 5 meeting, supervisors have an item on their agenda to certify the results of the election. Staff has not scheduled a discussion of next steps for that meeting, Buckshi said.

“Unless we are directed to do otherwise, the board will just formally accept the results of the election as they are required by law to do,” Buckshi said.

Gibson and Supervisor Adam Hill have said they would prefer that the state manage the basin because the county does not have the funding or the staffing to manage it properly.

“We are certainly going to have to direct our staff to do something,” Gibson said. “The consequences of the voters’ decision will have to play out, but it looks like the state would be the logical agency to manage the basin.”

Following the election, Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton, who opposed the formation of the district, put out a joint news release saying they think the county Public Works Department, with oversight by the Board of Supervisors, is the best agency to manage the district.

“The landowners of the Paso Robles basin have spoken clearly,” they said. “They do not want to create another layer of government to do the job the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District has performed for more than 70 years.”

Arnold and Compton also said large agricultural interests in the basin should consider forming one or more irrigation districts to raise money to bring supplemental water, such as Nacimiento Lake water, into the basin.

“Meanwhile, the many thousands of users of the Paso Robles basin that do not use their property for commercial irrigation purposes should retain their rights to use their wells and work with the county to ensure that the basin is brought into balance,” they said.

Jessica Bean with the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento said the state will step in and manage the basin if no local action is taken to bring it into balance. However, she said a better solution would be for a local management agency to be formed to assume management.

“It’s just a matter of who wants to step up and do the job,” she said. “But there’s still time, and we will be watching very closely as the June 30, 2017, deadline approaches.”