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Got water? 

Banning new North County subdivisions is one recommendation to halt groundwater's dangerous decline

click to enlarge GOING, GOING, GONE? :  Groundwater levels in much of the North County are falling, as shown by these well measurements at a vineyard east of Templeton. Limiting new water users and conserving existing supplies are recommended actions to protect the groundwater basin’s long-term sustainability. - IMAGE COURTESY OF SUE LUFT
  • IMAGE COURTESY OF SUE LUFT
  • GOING, GOING, GONE? : Groundwater levels in much of the North County are falling, as shown by these well measurements at a vineyard east of Templeton. Limiting new water users and conserving existing supplies are recommended actions to protect the groundwater basin’s long-term sustainability.
Amid ripening grapes in a small vineyard east of Templeton, retired engineer Sue Luft and her husband Karl, their two German shepherds at their feet, checked the water level in their well.

“It’s dropped four feet since last month,” Sue reported with a worried look. “That makes a decline of 85 feet since we drilled it in 1998.”

As many North County water users are seeing their well-water levels continue to slide downward, county officials are wrestling with the slippery problem of how to stop the decline from growing worse—before the issue ends up in court.

The county has no legal authority to force wine-grape growers—or anyone else, as it turns out—to use less of the water deep under their feet, under California’s antiquated water laws. But county officials can regulate land use, and one recent staff recommendation is to limit the number of straws sucking up the underground water by restricting new subdivisions over the vast Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, stretching to Santa Margarita in the south and Shandon in the east.

Water conservation is another recommended solution, especially for the 8,000 rural households that rely on water from the basin. Many vineyard owners are already making an effort to use water more efficiently, and the cities of Atascadero and Paso Robles have active water conservation programs, but so far there’s been no emphasis on encouraging rural residents to use less.

The county Planning Commission was due to make a decision on the complex issue at its Sept. 23 meeting, but voted instead to take the unusual step of calling a joint public hearing with the Board of Supervisors on Nov. 9. North County water users will also be invited to attend, with the idea of cooperating on a solution.

“Are we, as a community, capable of managing our groundwater resources, or do we have to have the courts do it for us?” Luft asked commissioners. Nearly two-dozen groundwater basins around the state are under adjudication, a “long, expensive, arduous process” in which judges make decisions about water use, she warned.

Numerous studies of the North County groundwater basin show it’s “either at the brink of or is already in a state of overdraft,” according to a staff report that defines overdraft as “a condition where outflows are greater than inflows on a consistent basis.” Pumping more than the “safe yield” can lead to permanent damage of the water supply.

Commissioner Carlyn Christianson pointed out there’s an “inherent conflict” between agriculture, population growth, and housing, which she referred to as an impending “train wreck.”

The county’s Resource Management System is designed to avoid future “train wrecks” by identifying resources on the verge of depletion so measures can be implemented to improve the situation.

Better monitoring of water usage is recommended in the staff report, including a requirement for flow-measuring devices on new wells and regular reporting of water use. The report also calls for decision-makers not to approve any new subdivisions that increase water use, “to limit the number of people who are affected in the future by continued lower groundwater levels.”

The agriculture industry will be encouraged to increase conservation and efficiency. Rural residents will also be encouraged to conserve, possibly with incentives such as rebates for low-flow devices and turf elimination. The county will support efforts to recycle water in Paso Robles, Templeton, and Atascadero.

“The value of property is tied to the availability of water. These are the property rights you must protect,” Luft told planning commissioners.

Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance member Paul Hoover said, “It’s going to be extremely complex. … It’s one giant challenge for all of us.”

 

Contributing journalist Kathy Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@newtimesslo.com.

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