SLO County supervisors vote to tighten regulations on agricultural ponds, reservoirs

Agricultural ponds became a contentious issue in San Luis Obispo County after Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees and graded steep hillsides to create a 20-acre-foot reservoir on Sleepy Farm Road, west of Paso Robles.
Agricultural ponds became a contentious issue in San Luis Obispo County after Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees and graded steep hillsides to create a 20-acre-foot reservoir on Sleepy Farm Road, west of Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to more tightly regulate agricultural ponds and reservoirs, to the frustration of farming and ranching groups and to the relief of residents worried about depleted groundwater supplies.

The board voted unanimously to put in place a permanent ordinance that places new restrictions on the ag pond permitting process, replacing an urgency ordinance that was extended in August. During their discussion, supervisors acknowledged the role ag ponds play in promoting increased groundwater pumping — a shift from their previous conversations, when they avoided talking about water regulation.

Ag ponds came to the attention of county officials after Justin Vineyards and Winery, a brand owned by the multinational Wonderful Co., clear-cut thousands of oak trees and graded steep hillsides after receiving a permit to build a 20-acre-foot reservoir on a Sleepy Farm Road property west of Paso Robles.

The reservoir would have held about 6 1/2 million gallons of water — nearly as much as 10 Olympic-size swimming pools.

At meetings held to draft an urgency ordinance to protect oak trees, residents also expressed concerns about the impact that large ag ponds — such as the Justin Vineyards reservoir — have on neighboring wells. As a result, supervisors took up that topic, as well, passing a measure in July and extending it in August.

The biggest change in the urgency ordinance was to eliminate an alternative review process, which allowed landowners to obtain grading permits needed to build ag ponds through the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas and Coastal San Luis resource conservation districts.

Justin Vineyards received its permit from Upper Salinas-Las Tablas, and supervisors said the county should have more oversight over the process.

Devin Best, Upper Salinas-Las Tablas executive director, told The Tribune on Monday that he’s in favor of ending the alternative review process because his agency isn’t equipped to regulate permits and handle potential legal challenges from neighbors and landowners.

On Tuesday, supervisors voted to permanently abolish the alternative review process, although the Planning Commission had recommended retaining that option for ponds 5 acre-feet in capacity or smaller. Supervisors also decided to require permit applicants to submit hydrogeologic studies. Environmental notices also would be sent to neighbors living within 1,000 feet of properties containing permitted ag ponds.

Ponds with a capacity of 1 acre-foot or less would be exempt from permitting.

Dozens of North County residents and representatives from county agricultural organizations spoke at the meeting, with many neighbors urging the board to end the alternative review process in favor of greater regulation.

Neil Heaton, an Adelaida farmer whose land abuts the Justin Vineyards property, said he thinks monitoring groundwater levels is important, especially to local landowners who fear their resources will be drained by big agribusinesses.

“We’re owed at least a little bit of allegiance, in looking forward, to protect that groundwater resource that we all depend upon for our livelihood in our rural area,” he said.

David Osgood, another Adelaida resident, said he and other farmers want to be good neighbors to those around them: “It’s all in groundwater hogging or not hogging in our country.”

Jim Hallisey and Mark Lowerison, two Paso Robles residents concerned about ag pond development near their homes, also pushed the board to enact stricter regulations and get rid of the alternative review process.

“I love farmers,” Lowerison said. “I love ranchers. We just need to get this right.”

But Patricia Wilmore, government affairs coordinator for the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, said her organization’s board thinks existing grading permit rules provide sufficient regulation.

“There isn’t necessarily increased pumping involved when you have an ag pond,” she said. “It may be the same water you’re going to use for irrigation, but it’s used under better management, which is why the ag ponds are so important.”

The board’s discussion primarily centered on the importance of maintaining groundwater resources and preventing negative impacts to neighbors whose properties are close to those with ag ponds.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold linked stronger ag pond restrictions to the county’s future need to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, which requires basins in overdraft to sustainably manage resources by 2020.

“The county is now being charged with reducing demand on groundwater pumping in five of the basins spread out all over the county,” she said. “This ordinance we’re talking about today only applies to groundwater pumping. SGMA compliance is hugely looming over us. It applies to groundwater pumping — no denying those two things are tied together.”

Supervisor Lynn Compton reluctantly agreed with Arnold, although she said it was frustrating to apply stricter standards to everyone based on the actions of a big businesses like Justin Vineyards.

Ultimately, with a few adjustments, the board passed the permanent ordinance, which will take effect in 30 days.

“I don’t like that for years and years, everybody has done this and been good managers of the environment and conscientious of their neighbors,” Compton said. “And I don’t like that because one or two people just make it bad, it makes it bad for everybody, and then we all have to live under a police state.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27