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A basin situation: South County water issues are coming to a boil 

click to enlarge PIPELINE, LIFELINE?:  Water from the Nipomo Supplemental Water Project (pictured here under construction) is scheduled to start flowing sometime in 2015. Though the project will bring relief for the depleted Santa Maria Groundwater Basin, some say it isn’t enough. - FILE PHOTO BY STEVE E MILLER
  • PIPELINE, LIFELINE?: Water from the Nipomo Supplemental Water Project (pictured here under construction) is scheduled to start flowing sometime in 2015. Though the project will bring relief for the depleted Santa Maria Groundwater Basin, some say it isn’t enough.

As water becomes scarcer every day in dried-up San Luis Obispo County, the cracks are starting to show—literally and metaphorically.

As the water level steadily drops in reservoirs, wells, and various groundwater basins, the political rhetoric is much harsher, conservation measures are more stringent, and everyone’s patience is growing thin.

In particular, preexisting tensions over water resource management in southern SLO County have ratcheted up in recent weeks, and there’s no clear solution in sight.

The epicenter of this tension is Nipomo—a sprawling, unincorporated community at the southern end of the county. Nipomo is home to more than 16,000 people and is also (problematically) completely dependent on groundwater.

In essence, almost all of South County’s groundwater (a major water source for all communities) comes from the enveloping Santa Maria Groundwater Basin. Though this basin has been in distress for a long time, many locals are concerned that the Nipomo area hasn’t been doing its part recently to conserve and protect the basin from overdraft.

Given Nipomo’s high groundwater usage—combined with and exacerbated by the current drought—people worry that the entire basin is now at risk of saltwater intrusion, which could ruin a major portion of the water supply.

“People down here are concerned about Nipomo, since they are the over-pumpers and over-users of the basin,” said Oceano Community Services District President Matt Guerrero. “We have to alleviate those concerns, and there needs to be a collaborative effort to preserve our water resources.”

The basin has been adjudicated by court mandate ever since 2008, and that policy effectively split South County into two different “management areas”: the Northern Cities Management Area (NCMA) of Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, and Oceano; and the Nipomo Mesa Management Area (NMMA), which consists of Nipomo and environs.

With that alignment, it’s easy to see how an everyone-versus-Nipomo dynamic might develop—and indeed it has, to a certain extent.

According to respective annual reports for each of the two agencies, the entire NCMA pumped slightly more than 4,200 acre-feet of groundwater in 2013, whereas the NMMA pumped an estimated 16,350 acre-feet in the same year. Given the current drought, such strong imbalances have provoked increasing concern.

“The county and Nipomo keep using water and approving development on the Mesa despite this poor water situation,” said Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson. “This isn’t necessarily a ‘go after Nipomo’ situation, but we have to control water use for the good of the whole basin.”

To be fair, the NCMA agencies are able to use other water sources including Lopez Lake and state water, which are unavailable to the NMMA. The NMMA is also home to several private, for-profit water purveyors; the Phillips 66 oil refinery; and many rural/agricultural water users that the local governing body (the Nipomo Community Services District) has a limited ability to regulate.

“Nipomo is not just the NCSD—I think that’s a crucial distinction that many people fail to realize,” said NCSD General Manager Michael LeBrun. “We are the only public agency in our management area, and we are just one of many water purveyors.”

In fact, the NCSD was responsible for only roughly 2,500 acre-feet of the overall NMMA usage in 2013. LeBrun said that some of the other major purveyors in the NMMA (including Golden State Water, Rural Water, and Woodlands Mutual Water) have vastly different incentives and motivations that de-emphasize conservation.

“If you look at the newer golf course communities—Blacklake, Cypress Ridge, and Woodlands—they’re pretty darn green right now,” LeBrun said. “These for-profit companies are always going to approve will-serve letters for water.”

When asked how the NMMA as a whole is aiming to minimize its impact on the basin, LeBrun detailed the $17.8 million Nipomo Supplemental Water Project, a pipeline (under construction) from nearby Santa Maria that will deliver another source of water to the Mesa when it comes online in 2015.

“I know the NCMA feels over-pumping on the Mesa has degraded their water supply,” LeBrun said. “That said, I hope they can see that the NCSD specifically has practically moved mountains, between the pipeline project—which we initiated and have primarily funded—and our conservation measures.”

“The pipeline is helpful, but the court said the NMMA was supposed to bring in 2,500 acre-feet of supplemental water per year, and it’s only going to bring in 650 as of now,” said Ben Fine, Pismo Beach’s public works director and city engineer. “It’s a fraction of what it’s supposed to be, and we are more susceptible to saltwater intrusion every day.”

LeBrun said the NCSD would like to bring in 3,000 acre-feet in supplemental water through the pipeline every year, but funding challenges have postponed that goal. He added that the NCSD is committed to meeting the area’s supplemental water mandate.

“I would also love to see an overarching program brought in to supervise water demands, but, frankly, that doesn’t exist,” LeBrun said. “We’re worried that the supplemental water NCSD is bringing in will be undercut by new Nipomo development and purveyors who won’t contribute their own supplemental water.”

Looking for a solution to halt depletion of the basin, the NMMA and NCMA have both reached out to county government. The county is potentially able to manage the basin through land-use policy, but (unlike with the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin) it doesn’t have groundwater management (AB 3030) powers in the adjudicated basin.

In addition, some people (including Fine and Peterson) have criticized the county for continuing to approve building permits for development on the Mesa despite the dire water situation.

“There is no question we need to change how we manage permit issuance and water demand in South County,” said District 4 SLO County Supervisor Caren Ray. “As a supervisor, that’s what I have been working on.”

Ray said that the ambiguity of the court’s NMMA supplemental water mandate (there’s no “who,” “how,” or “when” requirement) has complicated and slowed the prospect for basin relief, but she’s hopeful that all parties can come to a solution.

“Pointing the finger at Nipomo or being parochial is not going to solve our water issues, since there is no easy solution here,” Ray said. “I am taking the position of water supply defender, and the rallying cry in South County should be cooperation across entities.”

When asked for specific possible solutions, Ray and LeBrun mentioned augmenting the water supply in general, capturing water lost through ocean outfall, “banking” of water in Lopez Lake, recycled water, and targeted fees/rate increases to fund additional infrastructure.

“We need an array of solutions that collectively add up,” Ray said. “If we don’t cooperate, don’t regulate, and we hang our hat on private property rights, then we will kill the basin and kill our economy.”


Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at


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