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County allocates millions for SGMA compliance

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In a significant change of direction regarding the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the SLO County Board of Supervisors decided at its March 7 meeting that the county would assume financial responsibility for assisting users of six groundwater basins—the Paso Robles, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Los Osos, Cuyama, and Santa Maria basins—in achieving basin sustainability under the act.

In essence, the board voted 3-2 to call off a Proposition 218 effort that would’ve asked landowners who overlie the basins but aren’t in a water district to help pay for SGMA compliance efforts through a property tax increase, and to instead tap into the county general fund and funds from the Flood Control District.

The costs for that additional work, which includes developing and implementing sustainability plans for each basin, are estimated at $6.1 million for the next three to five years.

“I am unwilling to raise property taxes,” said 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who brought the proposal forward during the SGMA update. “The county does not usually advocate for raising taxes in areas they’re writing plans.”

Negotiating plans for SGMA compliance are unusually expensive. A routine community plan for a town like Los Osos or San Miguel generally costs the county about $500,000 to create, said County Administrative Officer Dan Buckshi. The groundwater basin sustainability plans are estimated to cost more than twice that for each troubled basin.

Arnold found allies for her proposal in 1st District Supervisor John Peschong and 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton. Peschong indicated that his North County constituents wanted to avoid state management of the basins, which is what would likely happen if a Proposition 218 vote failed over the Paso Robles basin.

“As I met with voters in my community, none of them want the state to take this over,” Peschong said.

A previously proposed water district to govern the Paso basin failed in an election in March 2016 by a large margin. Peschong, Arnold, and Compton campaigned against forming that district, which was thought to give large landowners too much power.

Gibson and Hill argued that it wasn’t fair to ask countywide taxpayers to fund the endeavor. Hill called it “a money grab,” and Gibson questioned Arnold’s assertion that SGMA was a state mandate that the county government had to act on.

“This is not a mandate to the county, this is a mandate to the users of that resource to manage their groundwater,” Gibson said.

According to Buckshi, the new policy direction shakes up the budget priorities and “ultimately, will come at the expense of other projects and programs.”

“This is about taking responsibility,” Arnold argued. “If the [groundwater sustainability] plan includes building infrastructure, assessments may be appropriate.”

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