Letters to the Editor

Water wars: Can South County collaborate?

Paavo Ogren
Paavo Ogren

Collaboration is one of the favorite buzzwords in government. In one word, it says we solved a problem by working together. It signifies success.

It’s no surprise, however, that collaboration is a difficult undertaking in solving water resource problems. Water wars in the arid West are frequent. Groundwater litigation — trying to get the judge to take sides — is commonplace. Establishing alliances in political circles to seek favorable legislative decisions is only half the battle. Lawsuits, appeals and the California Environmental Quality Act are examples of tools often used that create twists and turns in how government decisions affect water resource management. Even proponents of private property rights that allow property owners to pump groundwater recognize they need government to achieve the results that they desire — i.e. the courts and a groundwater judge.

Take South County. The cities of Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Pismo Beach recently decided further litigation is needed to protect their right to pump groundwater because over-pumping is occurring on the Nipomo Mesa. The Mesa itself includes both public and private purveyors who pump and sell water to property owners and residents. Understandably frustrated, the cities simply want enforcement of prior court decisions. For help, they are asking the judge to prohibit new development on the Mesa and are seeking other water resource restrictions. They argue that the Mesa has failed to fulfill promises, over-pumping is not just continuing but increasing, and the groundwater basin is in worse shape than ever.

Then there is county government. On Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will consider updates to several water and land-use plans and ordinances. The proposed actions include continuing to allow new development on the Mesa, provided that water usage is offset. In other words, don’t allow the situation to get worse. Presumably, the county figures that South County cities, the Mesa and the judge will figure out how to make the situation better; the county just can’t let it get worse.

This uncoordinated effort of governmental agencies taking different directions trying to solve the same problem is the opposite of collaboration. It is costly and counterproductive. County leadership will be important in developing water-supply options. Honest and realistic evaluation of problems and solutions by everyone is equally needed.

The Diablo Canyon Power Plant desalination project is one example of a supply alternative. Kudos to our 4th District supervisor, Lynn Compton, and the entire Board of Supervisors for unanimously pursuing this option. Likewise, water-reclamation projects are on the table. Both Pismo Beach and the South San Luis Obispo County County Sanitation District, which treats wastewater from Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach and Oceano, are evaluating reclaimed water. The sense of urgency in South County for collaborating on multiple supply alternatives, and not just one, should be higher.

Ultimately, the solutions to water resource problems are achieved by individuals and organizations when they meet, confer and truly collaborate. Perhaps 2016 will take a turn and earnest efforts will prevail in South County.

Hopefully, pointing fingers and denial will subside, and sleeves will roll up and real solutions will be pursued. Yes, there will be a cost. Still, the cost and consequences of not collaborating will be far greater.

Paavo Ogren is general manager of the Oceano Community Services District. He formerly served as San Luis Obispo County public works director.