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Supervisors agree to hold Paso groundwater urgency ordinance hearing 

With the water supply for 20,000 North County residents in “crisis” amid thousands of acres of new vineyards, SLO County supervisors agreed Aug. 6 to look at enacting controversial emergency measures designed to reduce vineyard and residential demand for dwindling groundwater.

An overflowing but sharply divided crowd of rural residents, vineyard owners, and their advocates filled the County Government Center during the all-day discussion, with around 100 people speaking their minds on the idea of an “urgency ordinance” that could restrict what one resident called the “frenzy” of new wine-grape planting.

Many vineyard owners asked the supervisors to delay taking any action until more stakeholders can be consulted, while some rural residents asked for immediate action, telling of their wells running dry as groundwater levels have dropped by as much as 100 feet.

The supervisors themselves were similarly divided, but eventually agreed to consider adopting one of two separate urgency ordinances at their Aug. 27 meeting. At the request of Supervisor Frank Mecham, one ordinance would cover only the worst affected area just east of Paso Robles, while the other—at the request of supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill—would include the entire overdrafted groundwater basin. Both would prohibit new wells and require any new groundwater pumping to be offset on a 2-to-1 ratio somewhere else in the groundwater basin.

An urgency ordinance could be in place for up to two years while a longer-term groundwater management plan is developed and adopted. Passing an ordinance on Aug. 27 would require a “yes” vote by all four supervisors.

“This is the most important issue that’s come before us in my time on the board,” said Hill. “It’s not a left or right issue, it’s a wet or dry issue.” Calling for all sides to work together to manage the common resource, he asked if the expansion of the wine industry is flourishing at the expense of homeowners and the basin’s future.

Gibson went head-to-head with Supervisor Debbie Arnold, herself a vineyard owner in Pozo.

“Our Resource Capacity Study showed the basin is in overdraft. Do you agree? Do you believe there’s a crisis?” he asked.

Arnold replied, “The crisis is the wells going dry.” She called for the county to use funds generated from selling its unused State Water Project allotment to help residents with dry wells, and for the development of a water conservation strategy for all water users.

“I don’t think we’re going to conserve our way out of this,” Mecham told her.

“We have to face reality. We have a crisis,” Gibson said. “This is a timeout to cool things down, so trust, mutual commitment, and enlightened self-interest can develop.”

A Blue Ribbon Committee with representatives from the wine industry will present its recommendations at the Aug. 27 meeting, according to Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance Executive Director Jennifer Porter. She asked the supervisors to take more time with their decision.

Vineyard owner Dana Merrill of Pomar Junction Winery, who is vice chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee as well as the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAG), told the meeting, “As an industry, we are looking forward to being part of the dialogue. We can work together.”

Sue Luft, a vineyard owner who is president of PRO Water Equity, a group of concerned rural residents, asked the supervisors to require metering and monitoring of all wells in the basin. Her well has dropped more than 100 feet—33 feet so far this year—and 20 of her neighbors east of Templeton are experiencing problems with their wells.

Another nearby resident showed photos of massive pipes being laid to irrigate thousands of acres of new grapevines with water from new wells on land owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick of Fiji Water.

The county Health Department reported a rush for new well permits in advance of the supervisors’ action, with more than 50 applications for well permits filed on Monday, Aug. 5.

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