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SLO County develops tools to sell, transfer, and exchange state water 

Fifth District SLO County Supervisor Debbie Arnold's concerns about groundwater banking persist as the county takes steps to enable more flexibility for its unused State Water Project water.

"I've been pretty clear all along, I don't want to ever see our basins here in the county be used for groundwater banks at all, especially with state water," Arnold said during the Aug. 24 Board of Supervisors meeting. "If we have excess state water, I think we start to concentrate—where we build the infrastructure to put it in above ground storage like Lopez [Lake], so that people in our county can use it. ... But not groundwater banking."

Currently, the State Water Project allocates SLO County a maximum of up to 25,000 acre-feet of state water per year. However, the county only has the ability to treat and convey about 5,000 acre-feet of that water per year and is allowed to store an additional 5,000 acre-feet of water per year in San Luis Reservoir. The county can tap into that water for use in years such as this one, where the Department of Water Resources allocates less than 100 percent of its contracted deliveries.

In March, supervisors approved amendments to the county's long-term water supply contract with the state that give State Water Project contractors, such as San Luis Obispo, more management tools. This includes the ability to sell, store, and transfer available water; to use San Luis Reservoir as an exchange/transfer point; and use storage locations other than San Luis Reservoir. At the time, supervisors directed the Water Resources Division to come back with language that could be included to prevent its state water from being used for groundwater banking.

Water Resource Division Manager Courtney Howard told supervisors on Aug. 24 that the contract amendments give the county and its subcontractors (cities, community services districts) the ability to recover some of the costs for using State Water Project water. If Shandon, for example, chooses not to use its full State Water Project allocation, it could sell that water and use the money for things such as improving water infrastructure. Or if water is about to spill out of San Luis Reservoir, the county could sell that water and defer costs to taxpayers.

County staff proposed a two-step approval process for exchange or transfer opportunities to water basins that the state identifies as "critical" (such as the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin). As part of that process, Howard said, the county would have time to include language that could limit the ability of the buyer or recipient to bank it. The county could remain the owner of the water, reserve the right to recapture that water, or restrict the ways in which it could be used.

While Arnold said she believed any sale or transfer of state water would "come back to bite us," South County Supervisors Dawn Ortiz-Legg and Lynn Compton said the constituents they served needed all tools they could get. Much of South SLO County depends on state water, which gets stored in Lopez Lake. The lake currently holds less than a third of its capacity with little hope for additional state water and looming delivery restrictions due to the drought emergency.

Compton said she felt there were enough checks and balances in the two-stage review process proposed to stop something nefarious from happening. Supervisors approved staff's proposal 4-1, with Arnold in opposition.

"This gives us the ability to exchange with some of the other state water contractors," Compton said. "For me, you know, I just have to protect my constituents down south and make sure we don't run out of water." Δ

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