Editorials

SLO County Board of Supervisors: Act now to protect our water supplies

Finally, a comprehensive water conservation plan for the unincorporated areas of San Luis Obispo County goes to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday — an ordinance that, among other goals, is intended to stabilize the Paso Robles groundwater basin until a long-term management plan is in place.

We strongly urge the board to adopt it.

Not everyone will walk away satisfied — not by a long shot. Some will claim the plan infringes on property rights; others will say it doesn’t go far enough.

But this package of measures — the result of literally years of work and many compromises will at least provide some measure of protection to drought-stricken groundwater supplies.

That is especially critical in the Paso Robles groundwater basin, where many landowners have been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to replace dried-up wells.

Parts of the proposal affect all unincorporated areas. For example, a waste prevention ordinance prohibits excessive irrigation of landscaping; washing down hard surfaces; and excessive runoff – measures that many communities have already adopted.

But this package of measures — the result of literally years of work and many compromises will at least provide some measure of protection to drought-stricken groundwater supplies.

The bulk of the program is primarily aimed at the Paso Robles groundwater basin and, to a lesser extent, the Nipomo Mesa, where groundwater supplies also are declining.

One of the most controversial measures would restrict new plantings of grapes and other crops in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. Farmers seeking to irrigate new crops would be required to offset the demand for water by conserving an equal amount of water elsewhere. They could, for example, take out a crop of thirsty alfalfa in order to plant grapes.

Farmers seeking offset clearances also would be required to meter new wells.

The offset requirement isn’t new; it was the cornerstone of a two-year emergency ordinance that expired in August. During that emergency period, however, several exemptions were granted to growers who had already invested in new plantings and for that reason, the offset requirement wasn’t as effective as it might have been.

That won’t be as much of a factor if the new program is adopted (some exemptions are still on the books, but those will eventually expire), which means it should be far more successful.

Keep in mind, it isn’t just agriculture that would be affected; developers of new housing in the Paso Robles groundwater basin and on the Nipomo Mesa would be required to conserve water as well, through plumbing retrofits and “cash for grass” programs.

But it’s the ag offset component that stands out, and could serve as a model for other counties grappling with similar and even worse problems.

In some portions of the Central Valley, for example, overpumping has caused soil to subside to such an alarming degree that bridges and levees are being threatened. That’s beginning to trigger calls for a ban on new wells.

San Luis Obispo County’s proposed solution is far less drastic — it allows growth, but in those areas where groundwater basins are severely stressed, it requires meaningful conversation measures.

It’s imperative that the Board of Supervisors approve the plan Tuesday — or we, too, could be looking at solutions that are far more severe.

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