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Supervisors expand the Paso basin's water ordinance to two years 

In just about two hours—potty break included—the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors finally took decisive action on an urgency ordinance that in previous weeks was an issue hotter than an Indian summer that took longer to pass than a kidney stone.

The ordinance will place a moratorium on new and continued use of groundwater over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. It was born in the spring as sinking water levels, continued drought, dried-up wells, and an ongoing increase in demand led the supervisors to consider enforcing a timeout so stakeholders could catch a collective breath and begin looking at long-term solutions.

The ordinance that passed on Aug. 27 set a 45-day period to get the ball rolling and let county staff figure out the specifics. On Oct. 1, it was up for a final approval, to extend its life to a full two years. The widespread support it once received dwindled as stakeholders among the agriculture industry criticized a particular piece of the ordinance and expressed concerns that the county needed to collect more feedback. The crux of the disagreement was an exemption allowing for vested rights—which would give applicants a pass if they were far enough along in site preparation, planting, infrastructure, and financial agreements. Some worried there were loopholes, while others criticized its requirements, saying it neglected other aspects that require significant planning and financial planning, like building a barn or other structures, installing fencing, ripping, or even the purchase of land itself. Because of these concerns, the approval got hung up at the Oct. 1 meeting, after Supervisor Debbie Arnold opposed it.

The supervisors previously decided they would give the staff more time to collect input and revise the definition of vested rights. The board passed the ordinance with plans to revisit the specifics in November.

“I’m concerned that farmers that just happen to be caught in the middle at the wrong place at the wrong time could be hurt,” said Dana Merrill, vice president of Paso Robles Agriculture Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, a group of vintners advocating for a water district.

Many residents have supported the ordinance, saying it’s necessary and that the balance of a moratorium and vested rights exemptions is about fairness.

“We believe the urgency ordinance was the right thing to do. It was a strong first step toward stabilizing the basin,” said Sheila Lyons, chair of the Creston Advisory Board, describing discussions among people in Creston. “It was clear that the current definition of vested rights was not always agreed upon, however no one I encountered expressed opposition to the urgency ordinance. The urgency ordinance has encouraged all people to come to the table, to talk and expedite the finding of a management structure for the basin. Please do not slow the momentum, keep the process moving so we can stabilize the basin, our economy, and our lives.”

Some speakers have expressed regular opposition to the ordinance, demonstrating skepticism toward both the data in play and the suggestion of more regulation and a government-driven approach.

After hearing public comment on Oct. 8, each supervisor voted to approve the ordinance—except Arnold, who unexpectedly abstained. Supervisor Caren Ray, freshly appointed that morning, voted yes.

“We all agree that the vested rights section is complicated and needs clarification,” Ray said, adding that there’s much more work to do, including figuring out a management structure and collecting more data. “We’ve got enough data to know that something needs to be done, and this urgency ordinance is, I believe, the tool that we need to take the time to do something right.”

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

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