SLO County supervisors should stay the course: Now is not the time to change water policy

Utility box near Paso Robles Airport.
Utility box near Paso Robles Airport. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is about to take a second look at who should pay for state-mandated management plans for groundwater basins threatened by overpumping. Should it be the affected property owners who actually use the water, or all county taxpayers?

If the board decides the county should cover that cost — estimated at $6.1 million — that would reverse the position it took back in November, when it agreed to act as lead agency for areas required to do groundwater planning, but only if property owners agreed to cover the costs.

Otherwise, control would revert to the state, which would then impose fees on landowners.

One point of clarification: Much of the debate over who should bear the financial burden has focused on vineyard owners in the Paso Robles basin and has been characterized as Big Ag vs. The Rest of Us.

While there have been serious water shortages in the Paso Robles basin that led to emergency ordinances and a failed attempt to form a single water district, Paso Robles is just one of six water basins in the county that must comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA. And it’s by no means only large ag interests affected; small growers and rural residents are, as well.

That said, we believe the Board of Supervisors should stick with its earlier policy and require property owners to pay their own way or, at the very least, share the cost rather than stick taxpayers with the entire bill.

Here’s why:

▪  It would be inconsistent to change the policy at this late date.

Many landowners based their decisions on the board’s earlier policy, including several who are in the process of forming — and funding — their own water management agencies. For the Board of Supervisors to suddenly come to the rescue of those who aren’t interested in stepping up would only reward their unwillingness to share the burden.

▪  The county can’t afford it.

Where, exactly, will this $6 million come from? As it is, there isn’t enough money to keep roads in good repair, and supervisors are bickering over where dwindling recreation funds should be spent.

And they’re going to put an additional burden on the General Fund?

▪  It provides a benefit most other residents don’t receive.

Most of us purchase water through a purveyor — be it a city, a services district or a water company — and pay water rates that cover not just the water we use, but also planning, maintenance, repairs and other costs associated with running a water system. (The city of Arroyo Grande, for example, has agreed to participate in developing a SGMA plan for the Santa Maria basin, and anticipates it may have to raise water rates to cover the additional cost.)

If the county foots the SGMA bill for a select group of people, the rest of us will be paying not only for our own water, but through our taxes we’ll indirectly be helping others pay for theirs.

▪  There are too many unknowns.

One of the biggest: Why would the county do this?

When the idea was introduced last month by Supervisor Debbie Arnold, she argued that the state mandate imposes an unfair financial burden on property owners.

That’s a concern. No one should be forced out of their home or off their family farm on account of this mandate.

But exactly how much would property owners be expected to pay? We don’t really know, though judging by estimates in one of the proposed Paso districts, rural homeowners would pay, at most, $50 per year. Owners of irrigated property would pay in the neighborhood of $35 per acre. That could be a major expense, but farming is a commercial venture, and we don’t believe the county should be in the business of subsidizing commercial ventures.

That costs to individual property owners could be more — or less — in other basins. Again, we don’t know.

One example: The SGMA plan for the “fringe” area of the Los Osos basin — a portion not already covered by an existing court-approved plan — has been estimated at $3.2 million. But Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who represents Los Osos, says work is underway to either establish that the fringe area should be exempted from SGMA requirement altogether, or included in the existing Los Osos basin plan.

He does not foresee an outcome that would deal “a crushing financial blow on individuals in that basin.”

▪  Will it set a precedent of the county picks up the tab?

If the county pays for these plans, what will happen down the road if the state orders additional ones, or isn’t satisfied with the plans as submitted? Will the county have an ongoing financial obligation?

Bottom line: We believe this proposal is a hastily conceived fix for a problem that doesn’t really exist.

The county already indicated its willingness to serve as lead agency for affected property owners as long as they are willing to pay for water management.

That’s fair. Giving affected property owners a free ride — especially in light of the county’s financial challenges — is a generosity we can’t afford.

We urge the Board of Supervisors to stick with its original policy by requiring property owners to pay their fair share.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune