North San Luis Obispo County has become ground zero for a debate over groundwater use and storage that’s spreading across the Highway 101 corridor.
A large area that includes portions of northeastern Paso Robles and inches toward the Monterey County line has been the subject of a heated debate about future water supplies and groundwater management. These days, two groups — the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, which seeks the creation of a California Water District to add new supplies, and PRO Water Equity, which opposes the ag group — are vying for public support.
In the middle of the debate is Larry Werner, an engineer who chairs a county-supported Blue Ribbon Panel to plot a solution for this persistent problem. After speaking with him on Nov. 12, it’s clear that there’s no magic bullet to solve these problems. It would be faster and far less expensive to do that outside of formal legal proceedings. Some additional thoughts:
• The board composition of the district should be broadly based. North SLO County’s water problems are in part caused by the transformation that wineries, agri-tourism and new communities have brought. All of these are stakeholders, along with traditional agricultural interests.
• The district should be as narrowly drawn as possible. Peripheral parties can make a lot of noise but they might not be key stakeholders.
• Measurement is key. Getting a well-by-well grasp on usage patterns and demand management could be as important to charting long-term solutions as securing new supplies at much higher cost.
Ultimately, the California legislature will have its own say about the charter for any special district to manage water in North San Luis Obispo County. That brings a new set of political risks into play. In the final analysis, the groundwater problem in Northern San Luis Obispo County is partly the result of economic growth that the wine industry, agri-tourism and urbanization have brought to a region that is increasingly attractive. Paso Robles wine country received the coveted Wine Region of the Year award this year from Wine Enthusiast magazine [See Week in Review, page 5A]. Solutions that kill the golden goose of prosperity will be a detriment to all.
The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions needs to go back to the drawing board and craft a district with broad appeal. If the state legislature gets deeply involved, it may be that Napa and Sonoma counties could actually chart San Luis Obispo County’s water future.