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Supervisor Arnold takes issue with Paso water basin grand jury report 

Despite heavy rainfall in January and March of this year, the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin still faces sustainability issues and low groundwater levels.

A recently released report from the SLO County grand jury found that rural residents who pumped water from the basin remained at risk of having their wells dry up, that there has been a failure to equally regulate pumping restrictions and fees across the affected water districts that rely the basin, and that public information and outreach on the Paso Basin was inadequate.

click to enlarge LINGERING ISSUES As the SLO County Board of Supervisors continues to search for ways to meet state water use mandates, residents affected by the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin sustainability policy will continue to be impacted by dry reserves despite winter rains. - FILE PHOTO BY KAORI PETERS
  • File Photo By Kaori Peters
  • LINGERING ISSUES As the SLO County Board of Supervisors continues to search for ways to meet state water use mandates, residents affected by the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin sustainability policy will continue to be impacted by dry reserves despite winter rains.

However, when the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors heard the issue on Aug. 22, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold took umbrage with the grand jury's findings.

"I am concerned ... that this report is very misleading," Arnold said at the meeting. "The grand jury is kind of a watchdog, [and] I am saying this publicly so they know that they may not have had the full information."

The report recommended that the county improve its data collection, begin efforts to properly educate and inform the public about the basin and its groundwater sustainability plan, and to introduce new fees by the 2024-25 fiscal year to help meet sustainability goals without pulling from the county's general fund.

County staff responded to the grand jury's report saying that the county agreed with most of the findings but that the report lacked context.

The county noted that some of the recommendations—specifically setting aside funds to ensure residents would have access to water, introducing new fees, and revising basin ordinances—are already being implemented.

Arnold called into question the jury's historical knowledge of the basin, as well as the impact that potential fees would have on small farmers.

"The rural people in this county have never been able to benefit from [the basin]," Arnold told the board. "I am completely opposed to taxing small property owners for something they had no part in creating."

She also questioned the grand jury's knowledge about who was in charge of the county's Paso Basin Cooperative Subcommittee, which is in charge of implementing policies and projects to address the basin's overdraft—namely 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson.

"I think everyone should be alarmed when elected officials are pulled out of their area and replaced with others on a board who may not be familiar with or have a history on the topic," Arnold said.

Arnold—who represents areas like Atascadero, Creston, Garden Farms, Pozo, and Santa Margarita and portions of Templeton—felt that she and 1st District Supervisor John Peshong—who represents Adeliada, Estrella, Paso Robles, San Miguel, Shandon, and Templeton—were unfairly removed from impacting basin policy.

"Peshong and I were pulled off of this water board against our will, and Supervisor Gibson was selected to take our place," Arnold said. "He has changed the policies of that board."

Arnold continued her claims, stating that Gibson—who represents San Simeon, Harmony, Los Osos, Cayucos, Cambria, Morro Bay, and parts of San Luis Obispo—was not the representative of those affected groundwater sustainability agency policy changes, both in the past 10 years or into the future.

"We had worked to avoid this citation for a very long time," she said. "Then suddenly with a change of leadership—to someone who doesn't represent the area—we have these problems."

Gibson countered, telling Arnold that he was elected to serve on the committee in 2022 and made the proper efforts to be up to speed on the history and issues of the basin to better serve in that role.

"I agree with [Gibson] that he studied hard because he couldn't have torn down 10 years of work without studying hard," Arnold said. "It's not OK with me that all of my [and Peshong's] constituents are going to have a fee [potentially] introduced and now they don't even have a voice about how this groundwater is being managed."

Ultimately the vote went 3-2 with Arnold and Peschong voting no, and Gibson, 3rd District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg, and 4th District Supervisor Jimmy Paulding voting yes to approve county staff's response to the grand jury report.

Ortiz-Legg noted that despite some of the qualms Arnold and others had with the report, the board needed to remain focused on the task at hand.

"It's a very complex situation [and] they did a good job of laying out the situation," Legg said. "We are trying to get to [understand] the rules so that those who use the most pay the most, and those who use the least—or fall under the use amount that would cost them—do not pay the same. "Most importantly, we want to work on bringing sustainability back to that basin." ∆

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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