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SLO County Supervisors move forward with exploring a permanent ordinance to stabilize pumping from the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin 

Coming to yet another tight vote on the topic, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors reached a decision that could clear the most recent logjam in the arduous process of wrangling the ailing Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

On Feb. 24, the supervisors moved in a 3-2 vote to direct staff to draft options for a permanent ordinance that would supercede the two-year urgency ordinance passed in 2013, which attempted to temporarily curb new and existing water use from the basin after well levels in some areas severely declined. The temporary ordinance drew fervent support from rural residents and reluctant support from those in the wine and vineyard industry after acknowledging that a “time out” from the expansion of irrigated agriculture was necessary while solutions to manage demand of groundwater were hashed out. That tenuous support continues.

“There are genuine concerns in our industry about this,” said Patricia Wilmore, Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance government affairs coordinator. “The problem is real, the [well] levels are going down, and I believe that our members are responsible and they want to do the right thing, and the right thing is to be responsive to that situation until we have a water district or some plan in place.”

The supervisors first voted to ditch pursuing the options on Feb. 3, but that changed on Feb. 10 when Supervisor Frank Mecham changed course. On Feb. 24, he said he’d support a permanent ordinance that would exist until new state mandates kick into gear—which will require a Groundwater Sustainability Agency to execute a Groundwater Sustainability Plan designed to manage basins declared to be in severe decline (including the PRGWB) by 2020.

Among a “menu of options” that would make up the ordinance’s guidelines is the implementation of agricultural offsets, a work-in-progress program that would require new irrigated agriculture to be offset by reducing groundwater use elsewhere. The planning commission and supervisors will consider the ordinance in coming months, looking to make a decision before the urgency ordinance’s Aug. 27 expiration.

Several overliers have come out of the woodwork to oppose any sort of demand management or pumping restrictions, citing concerns over fairness and property rights. Mecham, joined by Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill, took those concerns to task.

“Tell me, what’s the tipping point?” Mecham asked. “At what point will we get when you say, ‘OK, we’ve got a real problem on our hands?’” 

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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