Let the lawsuits begin! Paso Robles Groundwater Basin urgency ordinance challenged



Two groups of landowners over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have filed legal challenges, marking a new step in the unfolding saga surrounding the basin.

Wells and water levels have been in decline in many parts of the groundwater basin, stirring up much talk and action in 2013. In August, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors passed an urgency ordinance banning new water use from the basin for two years, giving the county, stakeholders, and the basin a “time out” while long-term studies are conducted and solutions figured out. Since the ordinance passed, the county has been formulating a vested rights exemption, which—if prospective water-users couldn’t meet a one-to-one offset requirement—would allow certain operations to continue if they could prove that significant investment and preparation was already made.

Much discussion and delicately crafted action have illustrated the growing concerns—and conflicts—surrounding the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, staving off legal action thus far. Often, decisions were tailored with hopes of avoiding the looming threat of lawsuits or adjudication, where a court-appointed water master plan determines water use allotments when a basin is deemed to be in overdraft.

Now, both the urgency ordinance and general notions of water rights will be up for a fight.

A new group called Protect Our Water Rights (POWR) has filed a quiet title claim asserting their rights as overliers. California water law allows those overlying a groundwater basin unfettered pumping as long as it’s reasonable and beneficial. The definition is fairly loose, and often favors agricultural users. These rights, however, can come into contention when a water crisis emerges and lawsuits begin. The quiet title claim seeks to further establish water rights, and may come as an early strike in the potential adjudication of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. The quiet title claim resembles similar actions taken early on in the legal mess that descended over the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin and lasted more than a decade. POWR has retained Richard Zimmer, an attorney with Clifford and Brown out of Bakersfield. Zimmer was involved in the adjudication of the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin.

“This is about local control. The basin belongs to the landowners of Paso Robles,” Cindy Steinbeck, a founding member of both groups and owner of Steinbeck Family Vineyards, said in a press release. “Land-owners really have nothing to ‘win.’ We have everything to lose and we won’t give up that right.”

The other group, Paso Robles Water Integrity Network (PR-WIN), which includes POWR and other landowners, is challenging the county’s urgency ordinance with a writ of mandamus, which seeks to stop the moratorium from holding effect.

Steinbeck, or PR-WIN’s attorney, Santa Margarita-based Sophie Treder, could not be reached for comment.

As this article went to press, the vested rights resolution was in front of the Board of Supervisors at their Nov. 26 meeting. It’s unclear whether these lawsuits will throw a wrench in that decision for the time being.

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

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