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SLO County sticks with plan for new Paso Robles water basin rules 

San Luis Obispo County supervisors are proceeding with a new regulatory framework for pumping water in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin that organized agriculture opposes.

The Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on April 6 to move ahead on an environmental impact report for a proposed ordinance that would replace the existing ordinance, which essentially prohibits increased pumping from the struggling North County aquifer.

click to enlarge STAYING THE COURSE A new county ordinance is in the works for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. - FILE PHOTO BY TOM FALCONER
  • File Photo By Tom Falconer
  • STAYING THE COURSE A new county ordinance is in the works for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

The new ordinance would allow a higher level of groundwater use for hopeful small farmers—allowing up to 25 acre-feet per year of unchecked pumping per property, instead of the 5 acre-feet per year currently allowed.

Led by 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, the proposed change is an explicit effort to redistribute the basin's water to smaller farms that may have lost their water rights when current ordinance was passed in 2013.

"I think that would be a whole lot more reasonable. It would give properties the ability to go into a commercial farming operation," Arnold said.

But agricultural groups, from the SLO County Farm Bureau, to the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, to the SLO County Agricultural Liaison Advisory Body (ALAB), have come out in strong opposition.

The new ordinance sets up a permit system for irrigated agriculture over the basin. Farmers who use more than 25 acre-feet but aren't increasing their water use must receive a ministerial permit to do so. New irrigation that exceeds a six-year "look back" of a property's historical pumping will be prohibited.

Farming groups warn that the ordinance is a slippery slope to more burdensome regulations and roadblocks for agriculture at the county government level, which will have "far-reaching impact on the majority of the property owners, assisting a few farmers while impacting the many," according to Dan Rodriguez, who chairs the county ALAB.

"It is the opinion of ALAB that this proposed ordinance is bad for SLO County's $2.5 billion ag economy and sets dangerous precedence for expanding regulatory burdens to local farmers and ranchers," he said in a public comment.

The groups also worry about how the five-fold increase in what's considered trivial water use will collectively impact the aquifer, which the state deems in critical overdraft. Opponents prefer that the county extend its current rules and let the multi-agency Paso Basin Cooperative Committee implement a long-term groundwater sustainability plan.

The supervisors' vote on April 6 authorized the county to expend nearly $400,000 to push the ordinance and its EIR to completion in early 2022. Δ

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