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SLO County eyes new rules on well drilling 

San Luis Obispo County supervisors are exploring what it'd take to bolster the county's authority in issuing groundwater well permits.

Following a report about groundwater conditions in the Adelaida region of the North County on Feb. 26, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to have its staff look at how it could increase the level of review and discretion the county has over approving or denying well applications.

click to enlarge DRILL, BABY, DRILL? Amid anxiety about the groundwater conditions of the Adelaida area (pictured), SLO County is looking at how it can expand its authority over well permitting. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • DRILL, BABY, DRILL? Amid anxiety about the groundwater conditions of the Adelaida area (pictured), SLO County is looking at how it can expand its authority over well permitting.

The board's direction was spurred in part by continued concerns out of Adelaida—the region west of Highway 101, between Paso Robles and Templeton—about a surge in agriculture and its resulting effect on the area's water supply, which lies below the ground in a maze of interconnected fractured rock.

Some residents over this largely unstudied groundwater region say they've lost wells in recent years. New agricultural projects and water systems proposed in the area consistently draw concerns and protests from surrounding property owners.

"There are currently zero drilling restrictions on the west side," landowner David Leader said, "no limitations on the number of new wells drilled, nor how deep they're drilled, nor how close they're drilled to existing family wells, nor how much water they're allowed to pump out of the ground. It's truly the Wild Wild West."

Led by 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, the county board on Feb. 26 debated the best direction for new policies. Arnold suggested reforming the well permitting process, so that any system of a certain size is subject to more vetting, review, and discretion.

"If we start to control and put some discretion on the systems we're permitting out there, we're going to see a big change," Arnold said.

Currently, the county Public Health Department processes all well permits over the counter, with only applications for deep wells into the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin (to the east of Highway 101) required to submit further documentation.

But county officials warned that overhauling well policies could be legally tenuous without more data and technical information to document the groundwater woes. According to a memo prepared for the meeting by private firm GSI Water Solutions, a study of groundwater in Adelaida would cost between $140,000 and $420,000. In lieu of that, the supervisors instead directed county staff to ask the U.S. Geological Survey if the agency was interested in commissioning a study.

In a statement to New Times, SLO County Farm Bureau Executive Director Brent Burchett said any future well regulations "ought to be based on scientific evidence applicable to specific local conditions."

"Until we understand the unique water challenges in a given area, we cannot make good policy decisions," Burchett said on behalf of the organization.

The board will receive an update in late May on the potential policies.

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