Water & Drought

Water conservation program adopted by SLO County supervisors

A road leads to well site in a vineyard near Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.
A road leads to well site in a vineyard near Highway 46 east of Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

How groundwater in the Paso Robles and Nipomo Mesa areas will be managed was fundamentally changed Tuesday.

Following a daylong hearing, a divided San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adopted a countywide water conservation program. The main feature of the program is the requirement that new uses of groundwater in the Paso Robles and Nipomo Mesa areas must be offset by an equal amount of conservation.

The vote to adopt the program was 3-2 with supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton voting no. Compton said she would rather pursue bladder dams in rivers and other measures to increase water supplies rather than relying solely on conservation.

The other supervisors said the water conservation program is not perfect but the Paso Robles basin is in crisis and something must be done to stop the damage.

“None of us up here want to deal with this, but here we are,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said. “I just can’t see the sense in doing nothing.”

In a news release issued after the meeting, Arnold said, “My concerns ... included the lack of any economic analysis being done, the added cost of regulation to small agricultural producers and rural landowners, and the use of deed restrictions on private property.”

Conservation offsets can be attained by several methods. These include plumbing retrofits, turf removal incentives and crop replacements.

The offset requirements for the Paso Robles basin would stay in effect until 2020 when a new state law requires that a comprehensive sustainable groundwater management plan is adopted for the basin.

The water conservation program replaces and expands a two-year emergency ordinance for the Paso Robles basin, which expired Aug. 27. In addition to expanding the offset requirement to the Nipomo Mesa, the program adds provisions for collecting fees and requires that new wells in the two basins be metered to measure groundwater use.

The water conservation program comes in the form of a series of county land-use amendments. It includes provisions to restrict wasteful water use, such as watering landscaping during the hottest times of the day in rural parts of the county.

The supervisors also passed a motion directing staff to investigate the practice of deep drilling, in which wells can be drilled thousands of feet deep. Supervisors said the practice is a concern because deep aquifers take many years to replenish.

The hearing attracted about 30 people who gave public comment. They were split between those who supported the program and those who opposed it.

Supporters like Jan Seals of Paso Robles told of wells going dry and other problems in the basin. “The decline of the Paso basin is real and scary,” she said.

Opponents like Bill Pelfrey of Templeton said the program will do nothing to solve the water crisis. “All of this is an end run around our property rights,” he said.

The new program will go into effect in 30 days.