Whose water is it anyway?

jessica Fall/Winter 2012 Newsletter

Big things are brewing in the North County and many folks don’t know about it.

I was visiting with some friends recently east of Templeton in what we call the “Strawbale Gap,” (you know who you are) when a discussion on wells sprang up.  One recently had to truck in water after being faced with a dry well; another, who has known about the dramatic decline in water levels, monitors her well daily and adjusts the family’s usage accordingly.  During the entirety of this conversation we could hear drilling equipment sinking huge well pipes across a 600 acre vineyard just over the hill.

Because I’m a resident and have so many clients and friends in North County it wasn’t not long before I was digging into what’s going on.  I was lucky enough to be invited to a public talk given by James Caruso from the SLO County Planning Department. He has dedicated himself to understanding and sharing the several sides of this issue.  Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard about this, it has not gotten much media exposure– YET.

It has become clear over the last several years that the Paso Robles Water Basin (PRWB) is in crisis. The PRWB stretches from Garden Farms, just south of Atascadero, north over the Monterey county line and east over the Salinas River. Here is a MAP showing the boundaries and the decline in water levels.

Since 2002 there have been several studies done which confirm that the basin is in overdraft.  Overdraft is conceptually quite simple (sort of like the federal budget).  It means that more water is being taken out than is being put back in – the basin is not recharging.  A common misconception is that if SLO County has one or two really wet years, the PRWB will pull out of overdraft. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way and although there are ways we can help recharge the basin, it is primarily up to Mother Nature.  For more information on recharging and answer to other questions, visit SLO County’s PR Groundwater website. I highly recommend the FAQs page.

So how do we ensure that the distribution of the remaining water is equitable?  Of course there are many different needs at odds here, but it basically comes down to residential versus agricultural uses.  Currently, agriculture is responsible for 67% of the total withdrawals.

As it turns out, there are no regulations controlling how much water you can pump out of the ground.  If you can afford to take your well deeper and install a larger pump — fire up your engines.  Since people tend to think that the County regulates everything, it was a real surprise to learn that the only thing the County can control is development.  The only tool available to guarantee that current residents and landowners have access to water at reasonable depth and costs is to limit the development of new houses.  So, no water = no development.  It is likely that a moratorium on the creation of new parcels through lot splits and other means is imminent in the PRWB areas. This does not stop current owners or residents from building homes or planting vineyards, only from creating new lots. This seems reasonable, but is unfortunate because houses are not the biggest straws in the basin.  And is this really a solution?  No, but it’s a start.

All of the interested parties, SLO County, local water companies, vineyard managers, and private residents alike, will have to come to the table to develop a distribution plan that is fair, transparent, and accountable.   Not to sound gloomy, but this most likely won’t happen and the issue will probably end up in the courts. The adjudication process has historical precedent and might just be better to get to sooner than later.

But wait you can help! The county needs help monitoring more wells in more specific locations.  HERE is a map of the areas where data is needed.  If you live in one of these areas, or know folks who do, please pass along this article and the monitoring link.

It’s important to understand how water distribution works and be aware of the rules and regulations in place helping to ensure that everyone gets their fair share. It’s an age-old problem and unfortunately, we’ll be seeing and reading more about in the years to come.

For more information, contact Turko Semmes at turkos@semmesco.com or at 805-466-6737 x 202.