On Thursday, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission is scheduled to consider adopting a water conservation program with built-in residential and agricultural offsets effective over the Paso Robles groundwater basin. There is a rush to adopt this program because of the impending August expiration of the urgency ordinance adopted in 2013 in an attempt to stop increased pumping.
The draft environmental impact report for this program states, “The Water Conservation Program is intended to substantially reduce groundwater extraction and lowering of groundwater levels in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.”
On the surface, this seems like a good idea. But as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.
As a Creston property owner and chair of the Creston Advisory Body for more than eight years, I have benefited from many detailed expert presentations on our water situation and heard from multiple organizations pitching proposed solutions.
The direction things are taking concerns me, as well as many others in Creston.
The county is looking to adopt ag offsets assuming that such a program will be water neutral and give agriculture flexibility to transfer water “credits” from a parcel that currently uses more water than it needs to a parcel that wants to use more.
This would be done using a 1:1 offset (stop pumping one acre-foot in one place, and start pumping on acre-foot elsewhere).
The 1:1 offsets may or may not be water neutral, but definitely do nothing to “substantially reduce pumping.”
On top of that, there are two obvious problems with the county’s proposal:
(1) The county would be acting as a court and officially granting water rights to some parcels and not others, based on controversial crop duty factors and estimations of pumping.
(2) It would set up a paper water exchange that would do nothing to help replenish the basin but would play favoritism to large pumpers who are the reason the basin has been in a state of annual overdraft for decades.
Meanwhile, language built into the changes strongly advocates for keeping all water for agricultural use and penalizes anyone who may want to build a home on a currently vacant parcel that pumps no water. This program tells landowners who have used no water or who have responsibly conserved water, and those with shallow wells in danger of losing their wells and possibly their property, that they don’t really matter.
With the ag offsets program as currently written, the large pumpers are to be rewarded by conducting business as usual and allowing annual overdrafting to continue and at the same time they will get paid for doing so.
People like me, who observed the intent of the urgency ordinance, would be punished in the form of reduced property values. When we purchased property here, the water in Creston was known to be plentiful, and we paid extra per acre for that benefit. However, shortly after we built our home, the basin began to decline and has continued to do so for 10-plus years. That being the case, we felt it would be irresponsible to plant large acreages in irrigated crops, even though our agricultural parcel is ideal for growing grapes and other crops.
Many others are in the same situation.
Of the 6,025 parcels over the basin, 5,414 are occupied by rural residents (90 percent) and could be in danger of depreciation.
Many aspects of this proposed offsets program are unsubstantiated, unverifiable or undefined (e.g., current pumping amounts; crop duty factors; enforceability; current right to transfer/sell water; mapping of water tables, subterranean aquifer stratum, and basin boundaries; impact on neighboring properties; well interferences; etc.) and are clearly bad public policy.
Instead of adopting a program that favors the exploiters of the basin — those pumping more than they really need — a better alternative would be to flip this concept on its head.
We need a system where all acres are treated as being of value and not just those acres that have greedily pumped our basin into overdraft. County studies indicate that irrigated agriculture pumps 65 percent to 85 percent of our annual safe yield.
How about halting all new development, particularly agriculture, until a groundwater sustainability plan benefiting everyone has been implemented?
How about a system where all properties, irrigated or not, retain their value?
Keeping individual property values high would benefit the majority of residents over the basin and keep our local economy strong.