Another piece to San Luis Obispo County’s groundwater management puzzle has been set into place, as the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance to regulate the sale and exportation of groundwater.
The matter took only an hour and was generally well received by the supervisors, who gave it their blessing with a 5-0 vote.
The ordinance sets permitting requirements to regulate the movement and sale across the county line of groundwater from any of the county’s 22 basins. Several conditions must be met to obtain a permit, including requirements that the action wouldn’t negatively impact nearby overliers; can’t result in an injury to reasonable and beneficial use of groundwater users; can’t result in seawater intrusion; that there are no adverse effects to the health, safety, and welfare of property owners in the area of the proposed export; and that the cone of depression from the withdrawal of groundwater doesn’t extend past the property line.
In addition, a public hearing and an environmental impact report would be required to obtain a permit. Costs to obtain a permit are estimated to be anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000.
The ordinance comes in the wake of a larger discussion about groundwater, questioning whether outside interests may move into the area, gain access to groundwater, and sell it to the highest bidder, wherever that may be. Red flags have been raised after a few corporations known for banking and wheeling water have purchased or installed vineyards atop the Paso Robles groundwater basin, a high-profile area of concern as water levels drop amid the backdrop of a sharp increase in vineyards.
Supervisor Frank Mecham said that while the threat of water exportation may not exactly be imminent, the ordinance is a necessary action to protect the future of the county’s water supplies.
“How do we be more proactive about the future of this county?” Mecham said. “Some may feel that you don’t have a problem right now, but I suspect that as this drought goes on you will.”
A handful of groups, including two South County-based organizations—the Nipomo Community Services District (CSD) and the Grower-Shipper Association—a prominent hydrogeologist, and the Heritage Ranch CSD located northwest of Paso Robles near Nacimiento Lake, expressed concerns about unintended consequences that may arise from the ordinance, such as worries that Santa Barbara County may respond with a similar ordinance and start a dispute that would concern Nipomo and other areas that depend on a water basin that crosses the county line.
“We don’t want to see Santa Barbara County reciprocate with its own export prohibition,” said Nipomo resident Ed Eby. “So I ask you not to risk the water supply of Nipomo with an ordinance that might be provocative to other counties.”
Deputy County Counsel Erica Stuckey said that because that water supply (the Santa Maria groundwater basin) has been adjudicated, the existing legal obligations—which involve water moving across the county line—would trump the ordinance.
Paso Robles-based speakers were strongly supportive of the ordinance—including representatives from the Paso Robles Basin Advisory Committee and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, as well as the SLO County Farm Bureau.
Supporters specifically thanked staff for removing language that would make the county, the flood control district, and their subcontractors exempt from the ordinance.
“I’m sure you’re aware, some of my neighbors up there hold to certain conspiracy theories that perhaps the whole discussion of managing groundwater is some sort of plot to steal their groundwater and sell it to San Diego or Kern County or some place,” said Michael Baugh, Paso Robles resident and a small vineyard owner. “The quickest, easiest, cleanest way to put those worries to rest would be to pass an ordinance just like this.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay