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County addresses Paso water woes 

For one of the biggest predicaments impacting residents and agriculturalists in Northern San Luis Obispo County, the devil is in the details.

On May 7, the County Board of Supervisors heard recommendations from its Blue Ribbon Steering Committee for the Paso Robles Groundwater Management Plan, which aims to address the rapidly draining water supply. The committee is comprised of stakeholders throughout the basin, tasked with assessing usage concerns and finding potential solutions, which Public Works revised and presented to the Board.

“We’re here because we have a problem. We all know we have a problem,” said Larry Werner, chairman of the committee.

Public Works staff recommended four general actions: the formation of a water district, continued search for supplemental water, hiring experts for further studies, and creating an emergency plan to receive water from the Nacimiento Water Project in case of severe drought. Public Works staff noted that management efforts have consisted mostly of voluntary reduction measures, and the county needed to come up with a management plan “with teeth.”

Homeowners lamented that their wells and their neighbor’s wells were running dry, citing the expensive process to drill deeper or install new wells, which can cost anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000.

“Owning property in the North County is like being on the Titanic, although we’re not headed for an iceberg, we’re headed for a dust bowl,” said Dianne Jackson, who lives on Union Road east of Paso Robles and is a member of the newly formed citizen group Paso Robles Ground Water Basin Overliers (PRO) for Water Equity.

The group is advocating for the county to look more closely at agricultural water use, which accounts for 70 percent of the basin’s usage. As more and more residential wells have run dry, vineyards are being planted at increasing levels. An estimated 4,000 acres of new vineyards are currently planned, meaning more and deeper wells tapping into the basin. There are approximately 6,000 wells in the water basin.

Many members of the agriculture industry in North County, especially those in the wine business, discussed the need to form a water district to manage water usage and create solutions in the future. Another recently formed group, Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), offered to put up money to hire experts to begin the process of allocating supplemental water.

“We really ought to embrace the economic engine that we have, that’s created a great quality of life. But we don’t have enough water, so we need to get more,” said Dana Merrill, president at Mesa Vineyard Management and vice president of PRAAGS, formed by agricultural industry members.

Before adopting the general recommendations from staff, the board discussed potential options to ease the stress on rural homeowners.

“Their wells are running dry, their homes are threatened, they don’t have the money to mine for water,” said Supervisor Adam Hill, advocating for the assessment of more concrete short-term and emergency solutions.

Following a suggestion from Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business, Supervisor Debbie Arnold moved to direct staff to assess the feasibility of offering fee waivers and creating lower-interest loans for residents forced to extend or drill new wells. Hill pushed for a temporary ordinance designed to reduce the number of wells being installed and put a moratorium on agricultural ponds—reservoirs traditionally used for frost protection, but also suspected to be used for irrigation during dry months. The board, however, denied these additions by the common 3-2 split, ultimately passing the original motion made by Arnold.

The blue ribbon steering committee and Public Works staff will now go through the process to determine feasibility and create a management plan. In the meantime, as Supervisor Bruce Gibson pointed out, concerned rural residents may not find much relief this summer as well levels decline.

“We’re not going to supply ourselves out of this problem,” he said.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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