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Supervisors put off a Paso groundwater ordinance extension 

After a summer of collaboration and sobering thought among those impacted by the dropping water levels atop the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, progress may come to a screeching halt if county staff, basin overliers, and county supervisors can’t reach an agreement on key pieces of an ordinance meant to offer relief from the deepening crisis.

Designed to offer a timeout for the basin—where increasing demand has led into overdraft and created a crisis for those relying on it—the ordinance bans increased water use from the basin unless offsets are in place or certain exemptions are met. It was initially greeted with widespread support and passed on Aug. 27 for a temporary 45 days, giving time for county staff to further define the ordinance and for the public to process the idea.

Feelings were more mixed when the board revisited the ordinance on Oct. 1, especially in regard to vested rights.

Because it’s an urgency ordinance and not subject to certain review measures, it requires a four-fifths majority to pass. With the District 4 seat vacant, that means a unanimous vote. The ordinance will now be revisited on Oct. 8 following the dissenting vote by District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold. Just for good measure, another special meeting is scheduled for Oct. 11, the day the ordinance is set to expire.

Citing concerns with the vested rights aspect of the ordinance and a general inability to understand what it means, Arnold held tight, explaining she wanted clearer information, much to the frustration of the rest of the board.

The vested rights exemption currently recognizes projects already in the works. The staff’s proposed definition of projects that meet the exemption has three elements: site preparation, irrigation systems, and the status of ordered plants.

The vineyard industry criticized that definition, saying it didn’t account for the larger process of planning, preparing, and planting a vineyard.

“There’s really a disconnect between the language of the ordinance and how agriculture operates,” said Jerry Reaugh, chairman of Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), an industry group that’s advocated for the formation of a water district.

Some speakers, however, reminded the supervisors that a crisis is a crisis, and the urgency ordinance was a necessary step to take while they get a handle on the problem.

One speaker read a letter from Mike Neiggemann, a resident of the Pomar area east of Templeton, who is tracking struggling wells. So far, he’s confirmed that 46 wells have gone dry and 41 are near the point of failure.

“Please step out boldly to demonstrate that you intend to protect the interests of all vested overliers,” Neiggemann wrote in support of the ordinance.

Other speakers requested a distinction be made between vineyards run by larger producers and smaller, boutique and family vineyards. Some pointed out the fact that declining water levels have been no big secret as new vineyards were plotted.

“These petitions for vested rights were written by expensive attorneys who clearly know their business,” said Creston resident Sheila Lyons, who chairs the Creston Advisory Body. “How is it that these very smart people did not do their due diligence to investigate the water supply they would need before moving forward with their business proposition?”

She added: “Why is their poor business decision our problem?”

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

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