County declares a drought emergency



It’s official: San Luis Obispo County is in a drought. The County Board of Supervisors declared a drought emergency March 13, applying an official identification to an already well-rooted crisis.

The declaration starts the ball rolling for county agencies to form contingency plans to respond to future drought issues. It also loosens and removes red tape in places, where local officials may spend money on projects without the typical requirements necessary for lengthy budget planning and approval.

The declaration also increases the county’s eligibility for federal and state assistance programs. SLO County is the 17th county in California to make the declaration. Statewide, the drought has stirred up concerns over economic impacts on agriculture, and a potential shut off of the State Water Project (SWP), an infrastructural juggernaut that delivers water to many communities. With a dwindling supply, the SWP is guaranteeing a zero percent delivery this year, and may even shut off its pumps that bring water to this area as early as August.

County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren outlined the tenuous conditions faced throughout the county due to decreasing water supplies. The situations differ from community to community, and some are worse off than others. Morro Bay is almost solely dependent on state water, making the city especially vulnerable. The County Operations Center off of Highway 1 north of San Luis Obispo—which supports Cuesta College, Dairy Creek Golf Course, the California Men’s Colony, and other facilities—also receives state water. Cayucos’ shallow wells have declining levels; in Santa Margarita, significantly declined well levels are becoming a big concern, and may bring mandatory conservation measures.

Ogren told the supervisors that there are still state water allocations available, and there’s water available in the various reservoirs across the county. Some of this water can potentially be shared between communities with emergency interties, some of which may require addition pipeline installations or the construction of treatment plants.

The conversation about the drought isn’t new, as San Luis Obispo County was among the first to be engulfed in the deep red indicating an exceptional drought—the worst of five stages—on the U.S Drought Monitor. The most recent discussion highlights the protracted nature of the situation.

“A drought happens slowly,” said Atascadero resident Eric Greening. “It’s like somebody strangling slowly rather than the guillotine.”

In terms of economic impacts, the county has already seen significant difficulties in the agricultural industry, where cattle have been sold off and fields have been left fallow. How this impacts the $1.1 billion agricultural sector countywide is yet to be told, said Mary Bianchi of the University of California Cooperative Extension, but the 2012 drought brought significant losses. California is currently entering its third year of this drought period, and a somber tone at the supervisors’ meeting underscored that it’s going nowhere fast.

“We are not going to see a decrease of this problem,” supervisor Adam Hill said. “It will be increasingly regular, and increasingly difficult to deal with.” 

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

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