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Mine the gap: A time rift between two water conservation ordinances meant more planting over the Paso basin 

Nov. 25 marked the last day of a three-month “gap” where new plantings of irrigated crops could take root in the soil lying over the Paso Robles groundwater basin, without strings attached.

Initial worries about the gap hinged on the possibility of a rush to plant as many new vineyards as possible. Only limited new planting happened though, in part because the wine industry generally accepts and supports the moratorium and also because vineyards require extensive planning before planting.

click to enlarge A CERTAIN SHADE OF GREEN:  Folks in the North County agricultural industry say there was a spike in alfalfa planting during a three-month gap between two ordinances restricting new irrigated agriculture plantings in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. - PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • A CERTAIN SHADE OF GREEN: Folks in the North County agricultural industry say there was a spike in alfalfa planting during a three-month gap between two ordinances restricting new irrigated agriculture plantings in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

People involved in North County’s agricultural industry are saying there was instead a spike in alfalfa plantings, which is cheaper and faster to plant than wine grapes and uses nearly four times the water. Several fields throughout the area have been tilled and planted with some sort of forage, including dry farmed grains and irrigated alfalfa.

The gap was a result of the contentious process San Luis Obispo County labored through to pass a permanent countywide water conservation ordinance—which the SLO County Board of Supervisors eventually did on Oct. 27. The new ordinance replaces an urgency ordinance enacted on Aug. 27, 2013, that expired on Aug. 26 of this year.

The approval process was originally scheduled to prevent a gap between the two ordinances, but it was delayed.

First, an attorney who challenged the original urgency ordinance alerted the county that an adequate public notice wasn’t given for the proposed permanent ordinance. Then, at a July 21, 2015, board meeting, opponents—most of whom oppose any government-led groundwater management—accused the county of rushing through the process.

Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes much of the basin, cast the deciding vote at that meeting to send the proposal to the SLO County Planning Commission for review, rather than approving it.

While the Planning Commission reviewed the proposal, the gap stretched into the fall, creating a regulatory no man’s land of sorts where unfettered planting became an option.

Supervisors eventually passed the countywide water conservation program (CWWCP), creating rules to limit anything from “wasteful” water use in unincorporated areas countywide to how and where new wells for residential water connections and irrigated agriculture may be installed in areas that are especially distressed.

In the Paso basin, new water use must offset, or replace, existing water use elsewhere in the basin. In the spirit of avoiding negative impacts to small-scale farmers, the ordinance allows new plantings of less than 5 acres, or a de minimis use.

When the ordinance was put before the supervisors for a final decision, it included a Planning Commission recommendation that increases in water use caused by new plantings made during the gap should be excluded from the offset program.

Mecham, however, recommended removing it, because he wanted to see an ordinance that encouraged converting to less water-intensive crops but didn’t retroactively punish someone that planted during the gap.

“That sets a dangerous precedent because we can go backward and say, ‘We really didn’t want you to do this and now we’re going to penalize you for that,” Mecham said at the Oct. 27 meeting. “If I were somebody in that position, I’d say, ‘Show me where the ordinance was that stopped me from doing it. There wasn’t one. There isn’t anything there to tell me I can’t, so why am I prevented from doing it?’”

Supervisors Bruce Gibson responded by asking Mecham if that would also encourage people to game the offset exemption by subsequently switching from alfalfa to vineyards, which use less water.

“So what this means is that somebody could run out between now and the day that this goes into effect, plant a crop, and say I’m … irrigating this alfalfa crop and now I’m irrigating 20 acres [and] I want to cash that in and put in four times as many acres of grapes,” Gibson said.

Gibson—who unsuccessfully sought to remove the de mimimis exemption—reluctantly supported the removal of the gap exemption in order to get the ordinance passed. Earlier in the meeting, Gibson and Supervisor Adam Hill had also lobbied for a two-to-one offset but gained little traction.

The one-to-one offset ratio is calculated by the area that’s planted, and how much water that crop uses. A water intensive crop can be switched out for a larger area of not-so-water intensive crops, as long as the net water use doesn’t increase.

The CWWCP calculates alfalfa to use 4.5 acre-feet of water per acre per year. Vineyards, on the other hand, use 1.25 acre-feet. One acre of alfalfa can be taken out of production and replaced with 3.6 acres of vineyards—the biggest and most lucrative crop over the Paso basin.

Noel Ryan, branch manager of Farm Supply Company’s Paso Robles location, told New Times that they have sold a lot more alfalfa seed then they usually do this time of year. Normally they sell roughly 1 ton of alfalfa seed, Ryan said. In the last few months, however, the company has sold four times that. According to SLO County Agricultural Commission Martin Settevendemie, alfalfa is not usually planted in the fall.

By Ryan’s math, the increase translates to approximately 240 more acres of alfalfa being planted, from just one of the area’s suppliers.

While that’s only approximately a 10 percent increase in the existing acreage of alfalfa over the basin, that acreage would be amplified if converted to vineyards.

While not all alfalfa seed purchased at Farm Supply was necessarily planted over the basin, 74 percent of alfalfa grown in the county is planted over the basin, Settevendemie said.

Just because recently planted alfalfa can potentially be put into play for offsets in the future, however, doesn’t mean it will, said Randy Diffenbaugh, a Shandon-based farmer whose been an actively involved stakeholder in basin management efforts.

Diffenbaugh said that while some people may plan on using the offsets, orseveral others may have the honest intention of protecting their ability to irrigate on their land.

“Just because there’s this ‘right’ to plant, doesn’t mean it’s going to come to fruition,” Diffenbaugh said.

The difference in value between land that can’t be irrigated and land that can varies wildly, Diffenbaugh said.

“It’s hard because emotions are running so high right now. We all assume that everybody is gaming the system. We all assume that everybody is trying to take advantage of it and capitalizing on it. But for a lot of people, they’re just trying to protect their investment,” he said. “That’s the largest investment you’ve made in your life, why wouldn’t you do it?”


Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

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

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