SLO County supervisors change policy on groundwater management

Mar 17, 2017

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) - passed into law in 2014 - for the first time requires organized management of the state's underground reservoirs of fresh water. It provides a framework for creating new governing agencies to do so,  and requires those agencies to create, maintain and enforce sustainable management plans.

Groundwater is the main water source for Central Coast vineyards and agricultural fields. With the drought came alarm bells that something needed to be done to stop unregulated pumping. Before the act, there was no requirement for users to report how much water they were taking out of the ground. But now there is.

Under the law, counties are designated as the default managing agencies unless landowners get together and create their own, and tax themselves to pay for it.

In San Luis Obispo County there are groundwater basins in Paso Robles, Atascadero, San Luis Obispo, Los Osos, Cuyama and Santa Maria.

I spoke with Peter Johnson, staff writer for New Times San Luis Obispo, who has been covering the new law and a surprise vote on March 7, 2017 by a majority of the county board of supervisors. I asked him to explain what that vote means.

JOHNSON: There's chunks of land that aren't represented by any agency. And a lot of those are up in Paso [Robles]. There was a water district formation effort that happened last couple of year, and it would have covered all those unrepresented areas and served as an agency that would then help come up with a plan for the basin. But that effort was resoundingly defeated last March in an election; something like 70 percent said no t it. And so when that vote happened, it put the Paso [Robles] basin in an interesting predicament, because there is a huge chunk of the basin that isn't represented by a water district or by any other agency. And so what the county is saying - right now - is we're going to be that agency, we will represent you, will use our general fund, our flood control district funding to basically represent you and help come up with these plans - with these all these other agencies - for the future. This was a change in direction, because basically before it was okay, we will help coordinate all of these groups...but what [the board] did on Tuesday was, by a three to two vote, is say, ‘don’t worry guys, we got you. It's our responsibility to come up with the funds to serve you.’ And Supervisor Debbie Arnold said, ‘you’ve paid plenty of taxes, we're not going to tax you again, we're going to make this a priority and have our public works department represent you.’

MART: Ok, I get it. I see in your article, it says, “According to [county manager Dan] Buckshi, the new policy direction shakes up budget priorities.”

JOHNSON: It's not really clear, because the budget hasn't been put out yet, but we're talking $6.1 million over the next three to five years to help out with this work. [County officials] said they had about $6 million in discretionary general fund monies, for next year - total. And so there's no doubt that it will be a significant undertaking for the county. The deadline to figure this all out is coming up in June. So what then might happen, is the state - the State Water Resources Department - would come in and start making plans for the basin.

MART: Nobody wants the state to come in...

JOHNSON: Nobody wants the state to come in. But it's a matter of what is appropriate to serve as a local agency, and this whole effort to try to have local control would have failed. I think it's definitely a sigh of relief for people who weren’t represented that the county decided to do this. But it comes at the displeasure of Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson, who didn't feel like that was an equitable way to go. But it's what [the majority of the board] decided to.