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Lawsuit tests new SLO County water conservation ordinance 

A writ of mandate filed Jan. 25 is challenging a new water conservation ordinance that, among other things, regulates water use atop the ailing Paso Robles groundwater basin. It’s the third major legal protest in an ongoing battle dividing North County property owners.

Craig and Jane Olson, who own property above the basin, filed the most recent motion, saying that the Countywide Water Conservation Program ordinance is unconstitutional and infringes on the rights of “overliers” to use groundwater for reasonable and beneficial use. 

“This is all about rights under the California Constitution,” Craig Olson told New Times.

The ordinance, passed in October, set rules for water use in unincorporated areas, regulating things like outdoor decorative fountains and car washing, and the installation of new wells and increased pumping for irrigated agriculture or new homes.

It was largely designed as a permanent version of the two-year urgency ordinance passed in 2013 to limit new and increased pumping over the Paso basin. The urgency ordinance was subject to an unsuccessful legal challenge.

The most recent ordinance requires new uses relying on groundwater from the Paso basin and on the Nipomo Mesa to be offset by curtailing an equal amount of water use from the same basin.

While the county has the authority to regulate land use, including in ways that can restrict water use, the question of whether or how water use can be directly regulated is a contentious issue. California law is generally permissive toward an overlier’s use of groundwater, though recently passed landmark legislation may change that by mandating management of basins experiencing severe drought, like the Paso basin.

“The county acted in excess of or without jurisdiction by enacting the ordinances, which improperly restrict access to groundwater rights and adjust water usage priorities in contravention of established California law,” the suit says.

The suit also challenges the efficacy of the studies and monitoring programs used to demonstrate that the basin is in severe decline.

The Olsons are also among 200 signatories on a quiet title claim that is challenging the extent to which government agencies can limit water use. The claim is spearheaded by Cindy Steinbeck, an outspoken opponent of county management efforts. She believes that the best way to sort out who gets to use what is through the courts, not through public agencies and elected officials.

Combined, the Olsons, their family trust, and the Gentle Hills Vineyard LLC own a total of 340 acres along Union and Geneseo roads. That includes a 169-acre piece planted with 141 acres of vineyards, and a 171-acre piece with 105 acres planted.

Olson said that his property has not experienced any water supply problems. Several residential wells—often not as deep as agricultural wells—in the Geneseo area have dried up in the last few years.

The Olsons closed on the property in October 2013, during the tumultuous period in which the urgency ordinance was passed and finalized. The properties were already planted, but their business plan involved planting 40 additional acres. Olson said that they’re also considering building a hilltop house with panoramic views on that property.

Per the county’s ordinance, the water use for those 40 acres and the house would have to be offset. Olson said he’s not interested in participating in that program because he doesn’t think it’s constitutional.

“Why would I go down a path that I believe is against the Constitution of the state of California?” he said. “It’s just not right.”

Whitney MacDonald, a deputy county counsel for SLO County, said that her office was still reviewing the writ, and declined to comment on the claim’s specifics. J. Tavener Holland, a local attorney representing the Olson’s Gentle Hills Vineyard LLC, told New Times that he did not have a comment, and said that the lawsuit speaks for itself.

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

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