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Paso groundwater basin wins a breather 

Paso groundwater basin wins a breather

SLO County supervisors finally managed to unanimously approve an “urgency ordinance” to reduce water demand on the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, after arguments filled a marathon nine-hour hearing Aug. 27.

The room was packed with North County residents on both sides of the contentious issue until the late-night end of the meeting, a division reflected by supervisors while they worked out compromises all four could support.

The new rules prohibit the planting of irrigated crops as well as new development over the groundwater basin, unless growers and developers can offset any water use on a 1-to-1 ratio. New wells will be required to have water meters. The ordinance, aimed at halting falling groundwater levels, applies to land over the entire basin, except the city of Paso Robles and the communities of Shandon and San Miguel.

It applies for 45 days, and can be renewed for up to two years, while a management program with equitable allocation for the embattled basin is established.

“Both sides of the table at some point are going to have to come together, or the lawyers will make a lot of money,” warned Supervisor Frank Mecham, referring to the idea of court-ordered adjudication of the water.

“The bell’s been rung. We’ve known about the precarious state of the basin for years,” he added, after supervisors received a new map of the aquifer showing sharply declining water levels in much of the area.

Supervisors heard from consulting hydrologist Paul Sorensen of Fugro Associates, who’s been studying the Paso basin extensively. He warned that the long-term trend of water level decline “represents a condition of mining.” Mining groundwater can cause the level of the overlying ground to sink, and consolidates the sediment so the basin can’t hold as much water.

The North County has seen what’s been described as a “frenzy” of vineyard planting and well permit applications in the run-up to the ordinance.

Supervisors also agreed to waive around $800 in county fees for rural residents who have to drill new wells as their current ones run dry. Supervisor Mecham reported that rural residents who are running out of water can now truck in water from the cities of Paso Robles and Atascadero.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold pushed for the proposed ordinance to be weakened, calling for a 1 to 1 offset for new water use rather than the original 2 to 1 ratio that was criticized by the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) as “draconian.” She was also concerned about limiting vineyard expansion, eliciting loud gasps and guffaws of disbelief from the room as she said no new plantings have gone in since May.

The task now is for stakeholders to figure out a potential governing structure for groundwater management, either a state water district or a county water district of some kind, with the power to mandate water-use reductions.

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