Supervisors approve of efforts to create water district for Paso Robles basin

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.
Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

San Luis Obispo County supervisors Tuesday directed the Public Works Department to continue its efforts to establish a water district to manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs the board, said the county was on the right track in its efforts to stabilize the basin, which has seen declining water levels in recent years. The county plans to pursue special state legislation that will give it additional authority to manage the basin and work to secure additional water supplies.

“We will see increases and decreases in storage over the years, no matter what, but capacity is declining,” said Paavo Ogren, public works director.

Specifically, a newly updated water balance estimate shows that the basin has an annual yield of 89,200 acre-feet. That is the amount of water that can be pumped from the basin without depleting it.

However, the water balance study calculates that the basin lost an average of 2,900 acre-feet a year from 1980 through 2011 through a combination of drought and over-pumping. This has resulted in water levels dropping in some areas of the basin with some wells going dry, particularly in the area east of Paso Robles.

Claremont-based Geoscience Inc. did the updated study for the county.

In response to the dropping groundwater levels, supervisors passed a two-year emergency ordinance this fall that prohibits any new pumping from the basin unless it is offset by an equal amount of water conservation. Ogren said he hopes to have a water management plan in place by July 2014.

Two citizens’ groups have offered a joint proposal for a groundwater basin management plan that could be taken to the Legislature. PRO Water Equity and Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) earlier this month suggested forming a special district with a seven-member board composed of two directors elected by large landowners, two elected by small- and medium-sized landowners, and three elected by voters living within the district.

The Board of Supervisors could move forward with that proposal or develop an alternative.

Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Caren Ray said they want to make sure the public has plenty of opportunity to participate in the formation of the water district. In addition to the special legislation, establishment of the district will be guided by the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission.

“This will affect the future of the county,” Arnold said. “It would be a good idea to increase stakeholder input.”

The county is also pursuing supplemental water feasibility studies. These will look at the possibility of obtaining additional water sources from the State Water Project, Nacimiento Lake and the Salinas River.

Ogren said he plans to award the contract for preparing the feasibility studies on Jan. 28.