Special Reports

Paso’s water gamble

Paso Robles’ growth over the past 30 years has added hundreds of homes on the east side of the Salinas River, including the tightly packed Riverbank neighborhood off Willowbank Lane behind Walmart. The homes here were built in 1990, at a time when Paso Robles leaders believed their city sat on a practically infinite underground water supply.
Paso Robles’ growth over the past 30 years has added hundreds of homes on the east side of the Salinas River, including the tightly packed Riverbank neighborhood off Willowbank Lane behind Walmart. The homes here were built in 1990, at a time when Paso Robles leaders believed their city sat on a practically infinite underground water supply. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Editor's note: This is the fourth installment in a five-part series. Coming Thursday: What San Luis Obispo County leaders and stakeholders can do to stop this growing water crisis before it gets worse.

For years, Paso Robles thought its water supply was an endless bounty. City leaders sat atop a liquid treasure trove — a vast underground basin that in 1979 was said to have enough water to last the entire North County more than 250 years.

“We had all the water we needed. Everyone felt that,” said county Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district covers Paso Robles. “Everyone had this false expectation that (water) was like print money — it would continue to be there no matter what. And that was just not the case.”

In the past 30 years, Paso Robles’ population has tripled in size to 30,200 and continues to grow. It’s gone from a sleepy cowboy town to an up-and-coming destination for homebuyers and tourists with hundreds of new homes, new hotels, a revived downtown and four golf courses.

And although residents are conserving water — even using less per person than they did 30 years ago — and the city is working to bring supplemental water from Nacimiento Lake, Paso Robles is in the midst of a severe groundwater shortage.

Some residents accuse city leaders of failing to take a hard look at the basin before allowing the boom of commercial and residential development.

Further, critics say, the city’s expectation to grow by almost 14,000 more people by 2025 sends the wrong message.

City leaders disagree, noting that the city’s water rates and infrastructure needed to deliver the water are based on that growth; without it, current residents would pay more.

The water source

The latest pumping studies show that in 2006, the city of Paso Robles accounted for 8.5 percent — 7,485 acre-feet — of overall consumption in the Paso Robles groundwater basin and sub-basin. One acre-foot is the amount of water it would take to cover 1 acre 1-foot deep, and is enough water to serve almost three households per year.

Among users within the city limits, residents are by far the biggest draw at 68 percent, according to Paso Robles’ 2012 water usage statistics.

Landscape irrigation for businesses, city parks and special neighborhood landscape districts were the second-largest user, followed by commercial and industrial customers. Wineries and tasting rooms made up a small percentage of the commercial category. The four golf courses and handful of vineyards within city limits aren’t tracked because they’re considered agriculture, which is allowed to use private wells.

Last year, 43 percent of the city’s water was drawn from the basin. But the majority of city water came from Salinas River underflow, mostly over the Atascadero sub-basin.

The Paso Robles groundwater basin is made up of a main basin and far smaller Atascadero sub-basin. In 2006, studies showed that the sub-basin was under less stress than the main basin because it was shallower and easily replenished by rain.

Paso Robles plans to continue to draw water from the basin, city water manager Christopher Alakel said, but when it can use Nacimiento water after its treatment plant is finished in 2015, the city won’t expand its average basin pumping as the city grows.

The Nacimiento Water Project is a 45-mile pipeline that carries millions of gallons from Nacimiento Lake to residents and businesses within San Luis Obispo County. Five partners helped pay for the pipeline in exchange for supplemental shares of water for their communities. The partners are Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo, Atascadero Mutual Water Co., Templeton Community Services District and a county water treatment plant serving Cayucos.

A once-endless supply

In the 1980s and 1990s, city leaders remained confident in their water supply and declared themselves visionaries in 1991 as they looked into supplemental water from Nacimiento Lake. They had already opted out of the state water system because the water supply was considered unreliable. Nacimiento was seen as a backup.

Even still, groundwater availability was almost never discussed as new homes and shopping centers spread across empty plots in the city. All the while, other cities, such as San Luis Obispo, clamored for new water sources in order to grow.

Current Mayor Duane Picanco and Councilman Steve Martin served on the council in those days.

“At the time, we were told we didn’t have a problem,” Picanco said. “But things change.”

Indeed, in 1987, city Municipal Services Director Jay Lyon told The Tribune that he had no worries about the city’s water supply.

“Our water is in good shape,” he said then. “We are on the western boundary of the biggest underground water basin around.”

Picanco and Martin say they don’t regret the decisions then to approve development because they were based on the information available at the time.

“You look back now and say, ‘Well, I guess I made a mistake.’ But based on the information I had at the time, it was that the groundwater basin was plentiful and recharging itself,” Picanco said.

By the late 1990s, county leaders began questioning whether the basin was an infinite source. Some expressed concern; the last major basin study had been completed two decades earlier.

But by then, Paso Robles had already more than doubled — and development wasn’t slowing.

The city had already built the four-lane Niblick Bridge — the largest municipal overpass in the county — to connect the city’s east and west sides over the Salinas River. It linked people to new schools and residential developments, and golf courses and new shopping centers.

Around that same time, as others in the county were ramping up efforts to get on board with building Nacimiento’s massive pipeline, Paso Robles was considered an “iffy player,” The Tribune reported.

Some Paso Robles council members had expressed worry that turning Nacimiento Lake into drinking water could mean turning away tourists — and their dollars — looking for recreation. State law says that drinking-water reservoirs generally can’t have human body contact. But swimming, boating and fishing are all still allowed at Nacimiento Lake, because a bill enacted in 1997 allowed those continued uses there if stringent water treatment requirements were met before the water was used for drinking, Alakel said.

Later, some council members held up further studies on how to bring the Nacimiento pipeline south through the county because they didn’t want the city to front the bill. The council also spent time looking into other water sources, such as desalination. Leaders in other cities who needed Paso Robles on board with Nacimiento expressed frustration that the city wasn’t committed.

Ultimately, in the late 1990s, Paso Robles staked claim to the biggest share of Nacimiento water — 4,000-acre-feet per year — and signed the contract for it in 2004. Picanco was part of the decision to pursue Nacimiento water.

“I did not want to be dependent on one source of water,” he said.

Mecham, mayor of Paso Robles from 2000 to 2008, said, “I think that cooperative effort was monumental in realizing not just one community has a problem.”

Today, Nacimiento water is a key part of the city’s water resource plan, adopted in early 2007 and formulated from council goals set in 2004, City Manager Jim App said. That plan calls for Nacimiento water, Salinas River underflow, groundwater, conservation and recycled water to carry the city into its future.

Still set on growth

Today, the city is still committed to growth. Its long-term planning document, last updated in 2003, brings the expectation to serve 44,000 people — about 46 percent more than now — by 2025.

Besides homes, such growth is envisioned to include shopping, businesses and possibly schools.

Several major developments included in the general plan have been discussed for years. The largest are the long-stalled Chandler Ranch, Olsen Ranch and Beechwood developments calling for 2,786 new homes on the city’s east side. Some residents say that in light of the water problem, the city’s growth plan should be reassessed.

Wayne Montgomery is one of them. A retired reference librarian, he and his wife live on the east side of the city near Paso Robles High School.

He thinks the city should not allow new projects until the basin issues are resolved. He worries that a lack of water in the future could risk the value of his home — the couple’s largest investment.

“What really concerns me is they’re continuing to build, which is really ridiculous,” he said.

But there’s also the issue of costs tied to Nacimiento water.

Today, half of the city’s share of Nacimiento water is being paid for, and will be used by, new development as it fits within the 44,000-population plan.

“There could be no growth. And guess who’s going to pay the tab then — the existing residents,” Picanco said.

“Growth, as envisioned and included in the general plan, will not rely on nor increase the city’s pumping of groundwater,” according to App.

However, city leaders acknowledge that it’s confusing to residents for developments to be approved while they’re being asked to conserve water and hearing others’ stories about wells running dry in rural areas outside the city.

Part of that confusion is largely because of poor timing, city leaders said.

Citizens’ protests over proposed water rates led to a five-year delay in establishing revenue to build a treatment plant needed to make Nacimiento Lake water drinkable. The city is paying for the pipeline but unable to use the untreated lake water. Construction on the plant is slated to start next year and end in 2015.

“As soon as we get Nacimiento water, that changes things,” Picanco said.

The future

Within the next 15 years, the city plans to buy an additional 1,400 acre-feet of Nacimiento water per year. New development will shoulder that cost from fees paid when it connects to city water.

Looking ahead, if any growth were to occur after the 44,000-person benchmark, the city would require developments to purchase additional Nacimiento water, its related treatment infrastructure and recycled water.

“To do anything else would be against the progress we have made,” said Alakel, the city water manager. “We’re not going to be growing on groundwater we’re not putting any more eggs in that basket.”

By 2025, city leaders plan to supply recycled water for irrigation to city and agricultural customers. It’s not doable until then because the city has to build a separate system with pumps, pipes and tanks to deliver and treat recycled water, and it needs enough demand from users to fund the project.

The city aims to eventually distribute 4,250 acre-feet per year of recycled water when it can afford to. That service would be delivered to large users such as vineyards, golf courses and city parks — users that could afford buying into such a system. But it wouldn’t go to small lots, such as homeowners, because piping recycled water to homes on a separate system would excessively drive up their water bills, Alakel said.

Mecham believes all the players in the Nacimiento Water Project should take the full amount of water available at the lake now because the pipeline — the most expensive part of the project — is already here.

As of May, there were 6,095 acre-feet of Nacimiento water still up for grabs, according to the county and its agreement with Monterey County.

“If you don’t want to use it, sell it. But secure the rights to it,” Mecham said. “If they don’t do that, then they’re (partners in Nacimiento) not thinking as far ahead as they should.”

If all the partners agree to take the rest of the water, Paso Robles would be on board, App said. But that would mean more money — and higher water rates — would be needed to expand the city’s water treatment plant. The cost to treat Nacimiento water is 10 times that of groundwater, Alakel said.

“I hear the question, ‘Why don’t we just get off groundwater entirely?’ ” he said. “And the answer is we can’t afford it.”

To help save customers money now, the current treatment plant will run in the summer, while the city will rely on its river wells in the winter.

If the city wanted to run the plant on a year-round basis, water rates would have to be increased to make up for the higher treatment costs.

Many decisions still lie ahead for the users of the water basin, even for those outside the city.

“The decisions before everyone now really show that all the players will have to be mature and work together to figure out something,” Councilman Martin said, “so we don’t run the risk one day of turning the tap on and having nothing come out.”

How conservation has reduced use

From 2006 to 2009, there were periods when the city of Paso Robles almost ran out of water because customers’ demands exceeded the available supply, city water manager Christopher Alakel said.

The declining groundwater table was a key reason. But more importantly, at the time, customers were using more water than was available in the summer. “It was a seasonal problem for us,” Alakel said. “We had to find a way to start changing our customers’ irrigation habits.”

To address the crisis, in 2009 the city restricted residents to watering lawns on only certain days. It also gave incentives to switch out grassy lawns for native plants and replace toilets and showerheads to low-flow systems.

Today, with those incentives still offered, residential water use has dropped almost 20 percent to 4,200 acre-feet per year for all residents in 2012.

The conservation measures shift from mandatory to voluntary depending on the rain season. This year, after a dry winter, the measures were mandatory again as of May 1.

The move also aligns the city to meet a new “20 by 2020” state law that requires cities to cut 20 percent of their water use by 2020, Alakel said.

What about Atascadero?

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