Residents' pleas keep SLO corporation yard well open



"This has been a godsend. ... We rely on this," Natalie Lee, an unincorporated landowner told San Luis Obispo City Council members at a recent meeting.

Lee and several county residents packed the City Council chambers on June 20 to make an earnest request: that the city not cut off access to a water source they'd become dependent on during the drought, a single SLO municipal water well on Prado Road.

"There are folks out there that don't have any water," said Mark Jorgeson, a resident on O'Connor Way, just west of the city.

In June 2015, the SLO City Council set up a system that allowed residents and non-residents like Lee and Jorgeson to tap into the Corporation Yard well on Prado, which produces non-potable water. For years prior, the Prado well had no regulations. Construction trucks would line up all the way to Highway 101 waiting to fill up on free groundwater for dust control, according to a city staff report.

That all changed when the drought hit. The city instituted a permit system to try to regulate what was essentially a free-for-all. For an annual cost of $50 (for city dwellers) and $350 (for non-residents), about 40 permit holders were given keys to the well. Users could haul non-potable water to fill toilets, do laundry, and provide to their horses, plants, and trees.

That water proved to be a critical lifeline for many struggling with poor groundwater conditions on the edges of the SLO Valley Groundwater Basin, a basin placed in high priority by the State Water Resources Control Board.

"When you put the permit and the key process into place, it did wonders for me personally," said Joe Sabol, a landowner near O'Connor Way and a longtime user of the well. He then began to choke up. "Keying it was just wonderful for those of us who knew we were doing the right thing with the water. ... We didn't see those big trucks standing in line, sometimes five or six big trucks waiting to fill up with precious groundwater."

With the City Council declaring an end to the local drought emergency on June 20, it was also set to cut off access to the Prado well. Ending the well program after the drought was the plan all along, city staff told New Times. In addition, utilities staff members said they caught a car using a duplicated key to access the well and are worried about further abuse of the well. Prado well users consumed about 14 acre-feet of water in the two years of the program.

But after the public's testimony, the City Council decided to keep access open, asking staff to bring back a revised cost structure that better mirrored normal city rates and to reserve the permits for non-residents of the city who need the water.

"We were very explicit: 'Hey this is going to go away when the drought goes away,'" said Aaron Floyd, SLO water resources director. "The council definitely extended their humanitarian cause."

City Manager Katie Lichtig also asked staff to draft a letter to the county Board of Supervisors, informing them of the city's efforts. The county is funding efforts to craft state-mandated groundwater plans for unincorporated basin areas, including the SLO Valley basin fringes. Δ

—Peter Johnson


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