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SLO County supervisors repeal new Paso Robles planting ordinance 

In yet another twist in the seesawing debate over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors rescinded the county's newly adopted Paso basin planting ordinance on Feb. 7—preempting it from taking effect.

The board's new governing majority voted 3-2 to gut the ordinance before its March 1 effective date, arguing that its new water allowances and accompanying environmental regulations would both exacerbate the basin overdraft and hamper agriculture.

click to enlarge PLANTING ROLLER COASTER SLO County supervisors changed policies yet again for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin on Feb. 7. - FILE PHOTO BY TOM FALCONER
  • File Photo By Tom Falconer
  • PLANTING ROLLER COASTER SLO County supervisors changed policies yet again for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin on Feb. 7.

"I hope I don't need to remind anybody in this room that agriculture is our No. 1 industry," 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg, who supported the repeal, said at the Feb. 7 meeting. "All of this [the repeal] is to really make sure that we continue to thrive ... to have the output that requires us to be an agricultural community."

In its place, county supervisors voted—also 3-2—to extend the existing "water offset" policy for the basin another five years. That policy, first adopted in 2013, requires any new irrigated agriculture to be offset by an equal reduction in pumping except for water use totaling less than 5 acre-feet per year. One acre-foot of water is equal to about 326,000 gallons.

"This is kind of a sad day for me," said 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who dissented in the repeal.

The rescinded planting ordinance championed by Arnold and the past board majority, which was adopted in December, aimed to solve equity issues in the basin by raising the ceiling on the exempted water allowance for landowners from 5 acre-feet per year, to 25 acre-feet per year.

Arnold and 1st District Supervisor John Peschong said that they believe the decade-old offset policy has favored large, corporate agricultural entities while disadvantaging smaller farms. The increased exemption was designed to remedy that.

"What we saw back then [in 2013], and what bothered me, is folks who weren't allowed to resume [irrigating] after the drought," Arnold said. "What we saw at the same time was a lot of agricultural investment coming into the county."

While acknowledging the equity challenges, 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson said the planting ordinance was "not an acceptable solution for what we have before us."

"For one thing, it further threatens a basin that's in critical overdraft, and at the same time it poses unreasonable burdens on the rest of agriculture in that basin," Gibson said.

SLO County's farming organizations agreed. The SLO County Farm Bureau, which threatened to sue the county when the new planting ordinance passed, objected to the environmental mitigation requirements it introduced for farmers.

"What we would've had is the first in the nation greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration mitigation mandate," SLO County Farm Bureau Executive Director Brent Burchett said. "That's not something that SLO County wants to do for agriculture."

Several North County residents and landowners of smaller parcels expressed support for the ordinance and opposed its repeal—with some calling attention to Gibson's campaign donations. In the 2022 election cycle, Gibson received more than $15,000 in contributions from J. Lohr and vineyard investment manager Matt Turrentine, both major players in the Paso basin management.

"He's beholden to big money donors," said Linda Becker, a local resident and 1st District chair of the SLO County Republican Party. "Large growers and water pirates must not be allowed to pump without limits while thousands of small properties are losing their water rights."

Burchett, though, countered that the SLO Cattlemen's Association, which gave $25,000 to Gibson's election opponent in 2022, also opposed the planting ordinance.

"This notion that you all got this figured out based on campaign contributions is really funny to me," Burchett said. "I'm trying to acclimate to SLO County politics, but where I come from, we care about agriculture. We put that ahead of politics. That's one thing that bonds us together as a community."

Gibson, Ortiz-Legg, and 4th District Supervisor Jimmy Paulding all expressed concern about the county's lack of progress bringing the Paso basin into sustainability. According to the state, the basin is in critical overdraft. The county and other local agencies are required by state law to implement a groundwater sustainability plan to correct it.

"We've got to balance the basin, and we need to ensure that we do that by not increasing groundwater pumping," Paulding said. "I get the concerns around fairness. But if everyone pumped up to 25 acre-feet, we would be going in the opposite direction of what we're required to do by state law."

Arnold, Peschong, and several residents who commented on Feb. 7 challenged the assertion that the Paso basin is in overdraft, questioning that conclusion's scientific and legal basis. While the basin's official 20-year sustainability plan pegs the overdraft at more than 12,000 acre-feet per year, the North County supervisors begged to differ.

"I don't believe the basin is in overdraft," Peschong said. "I believe that these are property rights questions and water rights questions and they are guaranteed by the Constitution. I brought a copy of the Constitution. It does guarantee water under your property for beneficial purposes.

"I'd like to once again reiterate that you cannot balance the basin on the backs of family farms," he added. "That's what's occurring if you rescind this today. On Feb. 7, 2023, we did not stand with the family farms." Δ

Readers Poll

Do you think the SLO County Board of Supervisors should have gone against their policy that states funding for independent special districts should not result in a net fiscal loss to the county?

  • A. Yes, the housing and job opportunity the Dana Reserve is bringing is important
  • B. No, it's giving special privileges to the Nipomo Community Services District
  • C. I trust them, they know what's best for the county
  • D. What's going on?

View Results

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