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Water basin fixit 

Paso's underground supplies depend on forming a locally controlled water district

Last week, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors adopted a countywide water conservation program. Under the program, new users of groundwater in the Paso Robles and Nipomo Mesa areas must offset the amount of water they draw from underground by an equal amount of conservation.

The new water conservation plan will replace a two-year emergency ordinance, which expired on Aug. 27. The water-offset requirements will remain until 2020, when a state law, the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires comprehensive sustainable groundwater management plans to be adopted statewide for specified groundwater basins.

Debbie Arnold voted against the water conservation plan. After voting against conserving water in the midst of a once-in-five century lack of water, Arnold said she was, “concerned that using this county planning document is not the most efficient way to manage the basins, in part because it does not include all water users and primarily restricts the rural land owners.” 

In a prepared statement following the vote, Arnold was quoted as saying, “I believe a SGMA compliant groundwater plan is the best means to create a fair distribution of water for all users while ensuring that our basin is balanced.”

Sure, the plan isn’t perfect, but let’s face it: It’s been at least 500 years since California has been this dry. We are in the middle of a historic drought, which has led to wildfires, strains on agriculture, and further threat of drinking water shortages in the Paso Robles and Nipomo Mesa water basins, which have been pumping more than is sustainable. 

Indeed, water conservation alone will not be enough to cope with the historic shortage in water we are facing, but it’s a start. In addition, there is another plan in the works that will achieve what Arnold claims to support. The plan will not only address all of the state-mandated requirements, but also result in the equitable allocation of water in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

Paso Robles groundwater basin

Groundwater levels have declined severely in many parts of the Paso Robles groundwater basin during the past couple of decades. The county is finalizing a computer model of the basin, showing the severity of the decline and the potential rate of future decline. From the 30 years up to 2011, the amount of water taken from the basin (primarily from pumping) exceeded the water that returns (recharge) by an average of 2,400 acre-feet, or about 782 million gallons of water every year. It’s anticipated that the difference between water being taken from the basin and the water that refills it will become significantly worse: 5,600 acre-feet (1.8 billion gallons) per year average without growth, and 26,000 acre-feet (nearly 8.5 billion gallons) a year average with growth of just 1 percent. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that at this rate, we’ll soon pump out so much water, there will be next to nothing left. 

A locally controlled solution to our water shortage

In September 2014, the governor approved a law to create a process to allow the Paso Robles Basin Water District to be formed. It required approval by the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which took place in September 2015, to be followed by a vote of landowners in the basin, tentatively set for March 2016.

The water district will provide a groundwater management structure for the unincorporated portion of the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The central piece of this legislation is a hybrid governing board structure, where small, medium, and large landowners and residents of the basin will all have representation on the board. Everyone will have a voice in the management of the basin, and no one will be able to take control. 

The SGMA, about which Arnold said “ … is the best means to create a fair distribution of water for all users while ensuring that our basin is balanced,” mandates that high-priority groundwater basins like the Paso basin, which has tentatively been designated by the state as critically over-drafted, be properly managed. 

An election to form the Paso Basin Water District was approved by the Board of Supervisiors on Nov. 10.

A vote to create the locally run, locally managed, and locally funded public water district will take place in March 2016. It will be up to registered voters and landowners in the basin to approve the water district. Pursuant to state law, two-thirds of registered voters in the basin boundaries must approve the funding portion of the plan. 

Only three choices

To be clear, there are only three choices for SGMA compliance: the proposed Paso Basin Water District; the County Board of Supervisors serving as decision makers for the Flood Control District; or having the state step in to manage the basin. There are no other choices available to achieve the state-mandated goals of the SGMA within the timeframe required by law.

As for increased fees, a local funding structure is needed regardless of who ultimately manages the basin, whether the water district or the supervisors. If individuals choose to vote against the funding structure, the only realistic option available is to allow the state to manage the basin. If the state takes over management of the basin, we will lose local control of who manages the water, as well as how much this will cost the taxpayers who overlie the basin. 

Quiet Title litigants are fighting the water district even though the water district formation does not affect their litigation. The lawsuit does not and cannot exempt landowners in the basin from SGMA compliance, nor can it be completed in time to meet the SGMA-required timeframes. Additionally, adjudication does not exempt the landowners in the basin from SGMA compliance.

If Supervisor Arnold’s statement that she believes “a SGMA compliant groundwater plan is the best means to create a fair distribution of water for all users while ensuring that our basin is balanced” is true, she should reconsider her vote on Aug. 18 against funding for SGMA compliance. In fact, she and I could join forces to support funding for the SGMA compliant groundwater plan. We need to work together to assure the formation and funding of the water management plan, or watch the state step in and pull local control of our water from our grasp.

Eric Michielssen is running against incumbent Debbie Arnold to become SLO County’s next 5th District Supervisor. Send comments to the editor at

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