Groundwater ordinance bubbling in controversy

August 4, 2013


County supervisors will take their first look Tuesday at a wide range of options for a controversial emergency ordinance aimed at curtailing demand on the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. (See full staff report here.)

“The discussion will be solely to consider options for an ordinance to regulate demand,” wrote County Administrative Officer Dan Buckshi, adding that the board will receive “a full report on the basin issue August 27.”

The staff report before supervisors is intended, said Buckshi, to provide a pathway to preparation of an ordinance designed to slow water extractions while a more permanent solution to overdraft problems is developed.

Such an ordinance will not be received cordially by some of the North County’s agricultural community, members of which have rallied around the concept of a water district with authority to initiate aquifer stabilizing policies and practices.

A group of vineyard owners have formed the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions to attempt circumventing an emergency ordinance like the one now being discussed.

The alliance met last week in Paso Robles to discuss options to new, restrictive regulations on groundwater use. John Crossland, the alliance’s treasurer, told the group any ordinance would be “draconian” and he warned supervisors to proceed carefully, suggesting restrictions could put some growers out of business.

An emergency ordinance requires a four-fifths vote and would contain findings “that there is a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety or welfare” by the issuance of new construction and use permits, variances, and other entitlements, according to the county’s staff report.

Among the options that supervisors will consider would be a blanket application of an ordinance’s reach to all properties within the unincorporated areas of the groundwater basin.

The board could prohibit “any uses that may be in conflict” with preservation of the basin’s supply, to the extent of prohibiting new or expanded irrigated crop production; conversion of dry farm or grazing land to new irrigated crops; and new development dependent on well water from the groundwater basin.

Construction of agricultural ponds might be completely prohibited, or their size severely limited.

Projects considered to be “in the pipeline” — projects that do not require a permit or have already been permitted — will not be affected by passage of an emergency ordinance.


So the County’s restriction is to place potential restrictions on the rural areas of the County. What about restrictions on water use within the communities of Santa Margarita, Atascadero, Templeton, Paso Robles and San Miguel?

In addition, if anyone has been paying attention the Santa Margarita reservoir has been up for decommissioning (i.e. removal) for over a decade, but various special interest (i.e. the City of San Luis Obispo) have fought that for a long time. The water in Santa Margarita has always been critical to the ground water replenishment of the Salinas underflow as denoted by the Corps. The water artificially retained behind the reservoir wall used to flow northward, percolating back into the ground all the way from Santa Margarita to Carmel Valley. Since the construction of that reservoir 80% of the annual flow has been restricted from flowing its natural course. So the solution to part of the problem is the removal of that dam. Restoring the natural hydrology of a watershed and water basin is the primary objective of the State Water Resources Control Board and all agencies that are permitted under them, including the City of San Luis Obispo.

The restriction / containment of water behind a reservoir interferes with the natural hydrology of downstream watersheds, coupled with the redistribution of that water to another area (City of San Luis Obispo) outside of that watershed and has resulted in long-term negative impacts to the north county grown water basin. Remove the dam and most of the north county water problem will be solved. Next, restrict growth to what our water resources will allow.


You want to talk about draconian vineyard people? You are doing zero for society except producing a recreational drip plain and simple. You can sugar coat it all you want with all your special,varietals bUt in the end it is a drug our bodies really don’t need. Flushing the toilet is more important..


Let me add my 2 cents worth to this. The alleged wine growers are mostly “out-of-towners” who merely use the wine growing as a tax write off. Let’s be honest – how many more wineries do we need in Paso Robles? There are already over 200 and more to come if the water issue is not solved in favor of the people.


How much better would the water supply be if all the LA and Bay area transplants who moved here in the last 10 – 15 years went back to where they came from. You talk about all the out of town winery owners but we have just as many recent homeowners from out of the area.


Yup. Damn Swiss dairymen have been screwing up our water supply since the 1860s



Hmm interesting concept. The only reason the towns exist here is a pit stop for people going from LA to SF. Prior to that this area just was a supply hub for almonds, beef and at one time lumber for LA and SF. People moved here in the late 1800’s to work to generate materials for, you guessed it – LA & SF.


Really? You are trying to draw a comparison between the folks who have chosen Paso for their home to the water-pirating practices of the vineyards?


So, MaryMalone,

How long has your family called San Luis Obispo County home? How long has your family called California home? Taken another step, how long has your family called America it’s home? Are you “blue blood”? If not, then the same logic applies – move home! Water rights, belonged to the original land grant holders in this areas, if you are not a descendant of one of those families, then you are an immigrant. One can not lay blame to the vineyard owners without looking at the entire picture, lush lawns, pools, artificial landscapes in effect in a drought ridden area. The point you missed is that the other post was in response to the remark by kayaknut about LA and SF transplants moving home. Ooneechia whea!


I got yelled at last time I presented this math, but here goes again:

An average family of four uses something like 0.5 acre/feet of water per year. There are about eight city lots in an acre. So, an acre of Paso Robles used four acre feet of water.

An average vineyard uses 0.75 acre/feet of water per year.

If you look at the water basin as being equally owned by all the landowners above it, it becomes clear that the cities and towns are using more water than their share.


I won’t question your figures but your conclusion is based on the assumption that an acre of vines is of equal value to society as eight families. I don’t think most people would agree.


Should we then take their land, too, when we decide that it is of more value to society?


Your analysis is faulty. Vineyard water consumption is measured in acre-feet per year per IRRIGATED acre, not per average vineyard. The total irrigated acreage in the Paso Appellation is 26,000 acres according to If the average use for grapes is 0.75 acre-feet per year (probably closer to 1 AF/Y/acre) that would give 19,500 AF/Year for wine production. This is reported to be much greater that the residential (city lots) use. Planting more acreage will increase the 19,500 figure proportionally.

The question of who of more worthy of the limited water is another story. It is a story going way back in California water law history, and is usually an agonizing and long battle settled in court, not by a BOS ordinance. The Paso water problem is probably 10 years behind the Nipomo situation that took over 10 years to settle in court. Some die-hards are still appealing, but Nipomo is within a year of improving its water balance. It is unlikely that the growers will back off unless required by the court (after a long and expensive fight), so hang on for a protracted contention, and drill deeper if you can afford it.


I understand your assertion that in the aggregate, vineyards use more water than residential city lots.

My point is that the preponderance of the land (and presumably the rights to the water beneath it) is not owned by the city lots, it is owned by the vineyards.

In this light, if “society” deems it appropriate to take the water that belongs to the vineyards (or other large parcel holders), at the very least they ought to be honest about it and state that they are usurping the property of others.


Show us the math for your claims about the vineyard’s use of water.


Numbers come from UC Davis vineyard establishment cost studies. They use 5.76 acre inches annually (for Napa/Sonoma). I rounded-up to 9 inches to account for the inefficiencies of our nascent wine-a-bees.


” the alliance’s treasurer, told the group any ordinance would be “draconian” and he warned supervisors to proceed carefully, suggesting restrictions could put some growers out of business”. Draconian? Boo F’ing Hoo..running the people who live in northern SLO county out of water for your greedy little conservative asses is draconian. Ya Gotta love SLO Co though. Home of the “F” big business attitude with its greed, except when it comes to something you clowns dub OK so you can live the “wine lifestyle”. Pathetic hypocrites,that’s all.


For more info about both sides of the issue, here are the websites for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin group: and their opponents, the Save our Wells group:


I wish KCBX still aired the County B O S meetings live over the radio. I wonder if the meetings are televised?


Charter: Public access channel 21 — live.


Thanks for the info, IronHub!

Mr. Holly

I wonder if anyone has considered adding something to the ordinance similar to what Cambria and maybe other coastal cities have done. Put a restrictive limit on the water use. If you need more water than what would be allotted, then you would have to replace the private residential wells that have been drawn down in order to increase your allocation. Along the coast if you acquired a building permit there was an ordinance in place that required retrofitting several existing homes to water efficient devices before the issuance of a permit.

In this case this does not immediately solve the problem. Although it would make the agriculture industry become more conservative and at the same time those in the agriculture business, who are making profits along with their government subsidies, could help the residential homeowners who are the real victims of what has happened.

This is a real emergency that is with us now and it’s not going to go away or get better for years to come. I hope the Board of Supervisors can put politics aside, agriculturists are responsible for Arnold’s getting elected with their large contributions, and they will support the people that support them. This decision will certainly change the playing field in San Luis Obispo County.


“I hope the Board of Supervisors can put politics aside”. tough task.



1. Retrofitting homes to buy the right to use more water always helps in water conservation. However, at this stage in the game, there are simply not enough homes left to retrofit to make up for the amount of overdraft in the Paso groundwater basin. There have already been so many homes retrofitted, by several programs which have been run over the years, that the remaining homes would not provide anywhere close to the return. Even aggressive outreach programs for homes to retrofit have failed to produce more than a handful. Newer homes, of course, are already built to conservation standards.

The last such retrofit program of which I am aware was run by Nipomo CSD, and it was within the last few years that it started. The agreement between NCSD, the County and the developers was that the developers would contribute to a fund and NCSD would do the public outreach, workshops, etc. to attract homeowners who could benefit from the program.

To give you an idea of who was in control of this agreement (and this may give you some insight as to why the BOS has allowed over development to proceed to the point of putting groundwater basins at risk…

NCSD’s general manager (the late Bruce Buel, a very strong advocate of water conservation at a time when the NCSD Board of Directors was against taking steps to achieve water conservation) and water conservation coordinator were only brought in on the discussion AFTER the supervisors had been met several times with the developers, and the program was largely agreed upon. NCSD fought a tough battle to have a meaningful say in the agreement

The problem was that, after Bruce Buel passed away and a new general manager was brought on board, the NCSD administration did not support the retrofit program, would not allow their water conservation coordinator time to work on the program, then got rid of their water conservation coordinator, and has done zip on the retrofit program.

A couple of developers paid the thousands to the retrofit program, and who knows what has happened to that money.

So the developers got their water permits to build, and retrofitting was not done. And I don’t think NCSD is the first agency to take builders’ money, issued the builders their water permits, and then did not do the retrofitting

2. The basic problem with the people in Paso now being faced with a groundwater crisis is the lack of oversight by the County Board of Supervisors and the Paso Robles officials, who did not take steps to limit water use years ago, before a crisis was at our doorsteps; and a board of supervisors which is in bed with developers.

The result is our county’s groundwater sources are not being used in a sustainable manner.

While importing water to recharge the basin is a good idea, unless limits are put on the use of water by landowners and developers, the groundwater will still be used in an unsustainable manner, and Paso will still be at risk of becoming a dried-up dust bowl.

The other problem with importing water is that Paso will be at the mercy of the sources of the water which they import. The folks controlling the source of the imported water may themselves be using water in an unsustainable manner. Those folks may find themselves in a situation where they have to quickly end their agreement or face their own dust-bowl scenario. In addition, the water source folks may decide they need to make more on the water they export, and Paso will be at their mercy.

3. There has been no county control on the numbers of permits they issue to developers and/or land owners in Paso Robles. Even as well levels were plummeting, they just kept rubber-stamping permits.

4. The mantle the county BOS and Paso officials used to cloak themselves while they merrily lead Paso Robles to a groundwater crisis is a report done by Fugro about 10 years ago. This report was based on an Fugro’s extrapolations of the findings of a report done in 1933. A peer review, done more recently, of the Fugro report was startling.

The Fugro report indicates that the Paso Robles groundwater basin has oodles and oodles of water available. Fugro’s reasoning, estimations and extrapolations on the GW basin (based on the 1933 study) were flawed. In some instances, the reasoning was so faulty that the peer review read as if the reviewer was at a loss to even understand Fugro’s reasoning and how Fugro came up with the numbers.

While the reviewer did not actually come out and say it, such screwy and illogical reasoning, in my opinion, may have been a case of Fugro trying to justify the desired outcome of the Fugro study…which was that the GW basin upon which Paso Robles depended for most of its water was bountiful.

The well levels have been precipitously dropping for years now, yet the Paso officials and County BOS never thought to question why that should be happening when Fugro’s report indicated there should be a groundwater water supply to satisfy all of Paso’s development needs.

Mr. Holly

Wasn’t even talking about retrofitting homes, it was just an example of what had been done to address conservation and control of distribution. This is directed towards agriculture use and an attempt to remedy the problem of dry wells. Any additional growth, both agriculture and residential in the Paso Robles area, and use of additional water should not even be considered. I had always wondered when there was talk in Paso Robles regarding the Nacimiento water line to address their water problem and at the same time considering an additional 3600 homes on the east side what they were thinking. You don’t even have to be smart to figure that one out.

It’s certainly a tough one and there currently is no real answer although a time out needs to be called and everyone is going to have to regroup and address this problem.


All the Supervisors have to do is to ask all the local well drilling companies to come and testify about what they have witnessed happening to water table levels over the past 25 years in each part of the County. The drillers are the experts that work with the water levels every day.

It is way too late for the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions to be able to ward off serious controls on water extraction from the ground basin by their members. They should have formed their group 25 years ago if they wanted to be effective, though it is doubtful their intention would ever have been to protect the water levels of the ground basin.

The fact is this is not going to go in the favor of the members of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. Their current alliance is undoubtedly formed to figure out how to weave through the legalities, rules and regulations so their members can continue to receive far more than their fair share of water from the basin. While their greed is immoral, as long as they can “keep it legal” to steal the water, the Alliance members would be able to sleep at night thinking about their money because they simply used their business prowess to outsmart everyone else.

Ultimately, the Supervisors know this is a problem that has no short term elegant solution where everybody is a winner, yet the problem must be addressed immediately because it is obvious we are currently way over pumping the local water basin and there is only so much water. This problem has been known to be getting worse for several decades as the water table levels have been continuously dropping during this time, but as with the federal and state governments, this problem is not addressed until it has become the huge problem it is today.

Now the Supervisors have to make the tough choices. In this case, choices that are in direct opposition to the position of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions simply because there are no options that actually solve this basin over pumping problem that doesn’t include cutting back the amount of water being used by agriculture.


whatisup. you make some very good points. the punchline is that are too many people trying to do the same thing and everyone must jockey for position. the wealthiest attorneys i know are water rights guys. not bad, but that is the issue.

what is your recommendation?


i got a thumbs down on this one. what is the reason? educate me.


You are correct about attorneys specializing in water issues.

If anybody wants to create a future of wealth and job security, become a California attorney specializing in water issues.


was there ever a movie made about water?


The best movie/video I’ve seen on the subject is “Cadillac Desert.”

It is uploaded (in 9 parts) on YouTube:


thanks, i like the title



All the Supervisors have to do is to ask all the local well drilling companies to come and testify about what they have witnessed happening to water table levels over the past 25 years in each part of the County.”

That is really a great idea. However, I suggest that local people, especially customers of the drilling companies, bring in the drilling companies…like to the Tuesday meeting.

The BOS has been so firmly entrenched in the hip-pockets of developers (as seen by the current groundwater crisis Paso is facing), I am finding it hard to believe they truly have made a 180-degree turn on their approach to development and developers.



“The fact is this is not going to go in the favor of the members of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions.”

Well, that certainly is the outcome I would wish for.

However, I find it hard to believe that, after decades of bending over for developers and grape-growers, that Paso officials are going to do a 180-degree turn and start making the kind of decisions that are needed to ward off (or lessen the impact of) the groundwater crisis Paso is facing.

Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.


If you were talking about city officials in either Paso or Atascadero, I would agree. However, the county government is currently less in the developers’ pockets. (Others pull their strings.) Unless the current county government is bought off with massive campaign contributions, I think that something positive will be done. The question is will the solution be the best one in reality or will it be (like Obamacare) loopholed and compromised into the worst of all worlds.


Unfortunately for the current BOS, this crisis was outed on their watch. Yes, the current BOS has contributed to the problem, but there were a long line of prior Boards of Supervisors who did heavy-hitting for the developers, as well.

If the Paso GW basin fails to the point where a dust bowl is created (as we are now seeing in New Mexico), the current members of the BOS will be seen by history as the ones who failed.

need water

the well drillers, most of them will quietly say the vineyards are over drilling and over pumping but they’re making so much money from all the new rural wells they’re drilling and new wells for the vineyards. they make about $30,000 for rural wells, and many times that for larger wells. they exist under fear that the big users will stop using them.