County moves ahead on plan for Paso Robles groundwater offsets

San Luis Obispo County supervisors approved a proposal Tuesday by a local conservation district to develop an offset program for irrigated crops in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Once in place, the program could be used by farmers to obtain the necessary water offsets in order to plant new irrigated crops as required by a new county emergency ordinance.

The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District estimates that the program will cost $150,000 to develop and could be fully operational by October.

In late August, supervisors passed an ordinance that prohibits growers from planting new irrigated crops for the next two years in the Paso Robles basin unless they can offset that water use with an equal amount of conservation elsewhere in the basin.

The development of an offset program was left for a later date. The conservation district’s proposal is intended to fill that need and has won the support of county planning staff and the Board of Supervisors, which approved it unanimously Tuesday.

“The proposal is comprehensive, well thought out and can be used into the future,” senior planner James Caruso wrote in a staff report.

Details of the plan and the methodology for calculating offsets have not been developed yet.

The district proposes conducting in-depth research on water use in the basin in order to calculate water use, water savings and the costs for water savings.

The proposed offset program would be similar to existing residential retrofit programs but would be much more complex, Caruso said. It will look at four areas: rural residential farms, crop conversions, new irrigated agriculture and other uses such as vineyard ponds, farm processing and frost protection.

In discussing the proposal, supervisors identified two concerns: the cost of the program and the time it will take to implement it.

County Administrator Dan Buckshi said the $150,000 will likely require an adjustment to the planning department’s budget to cover the entire expense. Supervisor Bruce Gibson said the program is worth the expense.

“This is a vitally important problem for our county,” he said. “Solutions are not going to be free.”

Supervisor Caren Ray encouraged the conservation district and the county staff to implement the program as soon as possible, noting that more than half of the two-year duration of the emergency ordinance will have elapsed before the program is fully implemented in October.

Water levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have fallen precipitously in recent years — 2 to 6 feet a year in some areas — causing wells to go dry and forcing many vineyards and rural residents to drill deeper wells. The county and two North County water groups are working to form a water management district to stabilize the basin.