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Vintner challenges schedule on controversial water hearing 

Rural North County residents have waited all summer for San Luis Obispo County to address overdraft in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. Some people in the wine industry want them to wait a little longer.

The Board of Supervisors plans to hold an Aug. 27 hearing on whether to adopt one of two emergency ordinances aimed at slowing basin depletion. Both ordinances would prohibit well-dependent development and increased crop production unless the use is offset by a 2-to-1 ratio somewhere else in the basin. One ordinance would only affect an area east of Paso where the problem is most acute, while the other would cover the entire basin except for an area near Atascadero.

Becky Zelinski co-owns a Paso Robles custom crush facility and vineyard management company with her husband. She believes the board violated the Brown Act when it directed staff on July 9 to begin drafting ordinances without posting public notices before the meeting. Zelinski wrote an Aug. 8 letter asking the board to postpone the hearing until the county could correct the alleged deficiency.

“The water issue is important, but regardless of which side of the water issue you are on, I would hope that all citizens would want to see that laws are obeyed,” Zelinski wrote in an e-mail.

Acting board chairman Bruce Gibson said on Aug. 21 that the hearing would proceed as scheduled. County counsel Rita Neal rejected the notion that the board violated the Brown Act during its July 9 meeting.

“The board did not take any action on the 9th of July,” she said.

A Central Coast group that represents the interests of corporate vintners in the basin controversy wants more data if the county chooses to proceed with the scheduled hearing. Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business chief Mike Brown asked Aug. 20 for a dot map showing where in the basin wells are going dry and an estimate of how much water the ordinances would save.

SLO County published a 21-document staff report later that afternoon. The archived folder contains a map that began circulating late last week showing significant decreases in aquifer levels all over the basin.

“That’s the type of information that’s more relevant,” Gibson told New Times.

The report also discusses water savings in hypothetical terms. Using water-use estimates in the un-metered basin wells, enforcing the 2-to-1 offset would save as much as 5,000 acre-feet per year if vineyard expansion continues at the current rate. However, it’s expected that the ordinance itself would slow vineyard expansion in the basin.

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