Environment

SLO County supervisors vote to take on groundwater management oversight

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday, March 7, 2017, that the county will take on the responsibility of groundwater planning and management in unincorporated areas. Here, an electric powered well near Highway 41 near Shandon services a vineyard in June 2016.
The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday, March 7, 2017, that the county will take on the responsibility of groundwater planning and management in unincorporated areas. Here, an electric powered well near Highway 41 near Shandon services a vineyard in June 2016. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In a significant shift in their own policy, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided the county will take on the responsibility of groundwater planning and management in unincorporated areas to the tune of at least $1.6 million a year.

The board voted 3-2 Tuesday to strike out parts of a policy passed last November regarding how the county will comply with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which set a June 30 deadline for stakeholders in basins in overdraft to form management agencies that will create sustainable groundwater plans. If a local water district or county doesn’t manage the basin, the state will intervene.

Supervisor Adam Hill called the motion “a money grab” before he voted against it. Supervisor Bruce Gibson voted “no” and questioned the equity of making the shift when people have been making decisions based on the board’s original policy.

The part of the policy stricken said the county would act as the Groundwater Sustainability Agency for unincorporated areas that don’t form their own agency, but only if landowners in those regions funded the long-term costs of compliance with the state law. If landowners did not come up with funding, the county would not act as their agency and the state would take over groundwater management.

In my mind, the county needs to take responsibility for planning and management of the water resource in the unincorporated areas that it governs. Planning is our business.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold

Supervisor Debbie Arnold proposed the change Tuesday because she said she is “unwilling to raise taxes.”

A majority of the people relieved by the county’s shift are in the Paso Robles basin, though people are impacted throughout San Luis Obispo County, according to county staff.

“In my mind, the county needs to take responsibility for planning and management of the water resource in the unincorporated areas that it governs,” Arnold said. “Planning is our business.”

Hill and Gibson said the policy was unfair to people who took responsibility to form their own water agencies.

“What about the equity? You have those who are forming their own water district because they want to take action on this. And you are looking at a subset of this basin who doesn’t want to take responsibility, and so we’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll let the general taxpayer take responsibility,’ ” Gibson said.

Gibson asked board Chairman John Peschong, whose district includes Paso Robles, “Why vote for this?”

“As I met with people in my community, none of them want the state of California to take this over,” Peschong said. “I do not believe this is putting the people in my community in the best place. That is why I want to remove it.”

As I met with people in my community, none of them want the state of California to take this over.

Supervisor John Peschong

With the vote, the county will now become the agency overseeing groundwater management in those areas, and it will pay between $1.6 million and $2.2 million a year for the first three years to develop the sustainability plan.

The costs include paying consultants to determine how the basin functions — how much water goes into the aquifer and how much can be pumped out sustainably — as well as public outreach and implementation of the plan.

What the act does

In the midst of drought conditions as groundwater tables fell and wells failed, state lawmakers determined that water stored in underground aquifers needed to be regulated. They passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, which requires stakeholders in local water basins in overdraft to form local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies and by June 30 to develop groundwater sustainability plans, or else the state will intervene. Landowners concerned with groundwater management, water companies and public agencies can all be involved.

Six basins were identified by the state Department of Water Resources in San Luis Obispo County. Three of those were included in a statewide list of 21 “critically overdrafted basins,” impacted by seawater intrusion, land subsidence, groundwater depletion or chronic lowering of groundwaters. Those three are Cuyama Valley, Los Osos Valley and Paso Robles.

$16.3 millionPotential cost to develop plans in all six basins over the next three years

The other three basins are San Luis Obispo Valley/Edna Valley, Santa Maria Valley and Atascadero.

The cost to develop plans in all six basins over the next three years could total $16.3 million, according to current draft budgets compiled by county staff.

Two water districts are being formed in the Paso basin, and each will have its own agency. Another district is being formed in Cuyama basin that will be a member of one agency.

Public hearings for individual basin agencies are expected to begin April 4 and May 2.

Monica Vaughan: 805-781-7930, @MonicaLVaughan

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