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Paso wastewater fines to pay for groundwater studies 

Years of wastewater pollution violations have cost the city of Paso Robles nearly $500,000, but more than half of that fine will go toward an initiative to research management strategies for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board slapped Paso Robles with the penalty on Aug. 24, pointing to nearly three years of pollution into the Salinas River stemming from poorly treated wastewater.

Between 2013 and 2016, Paso’s antiquated and now-retired wastewater treatment plant became “overloaded with waste,” in part due to residents’ drastic water conservation efforts amid the drought. The plant stopped being able to effectively eliminate bacteria and organic matter, according to wastewater manager Matt Thompson.

“The city consistently violated permit limits,” he said at a Sept. 20 City Council meeting. “The strength of [the waste] coming in was overloading the old tricking filters for treatment. It caused us to exceed limits.”

Paso has solved many of those issues with recent upgrades to its sewer plant. Now, Thompson said, the plant is “well able to handle the higher-strength waste we see in California today.”

But the city still has to pay the piper for its violations.

Aware of the impending penalties, the city worked with the regional water board to negotiate a local “supplemental environmental project” that $255,000 of the fine could go toward.

“It puts the penalty money to good use locally,” Thompson said.

The purpose of the project is to “develop a sustainable groundwater management methodology for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin for implementation by local entities,” a process that SLO County and local agencies are already scrambling to complete as part of a state mandate.

The Bay Foundation of Morro Bay, an organization with a track record of administering publicly funded environmental programs, will manage Paso’s penalty funds, while the water board will coordinate the project. 

Thompson alluded to the possibility of involving Stanford University and its Water in the West program to assist in researching solutions to the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin’s woes.

“Water in the West takes the considerable firepower of Stanford faculty and applies it to real-world situations, like how to make California thrive in the midst of prolonged drought,” Thompson said.

The City Council unanimously approved moving $241,000 from the city’s sewer fund on Sept. 20 to help pay for the project and penalties.

Representatives of the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board could not be reached for comment before press time.

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