Lustful eyes cast on Paso Robles Water Basin

May 12, 2021

(Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors recent vote to allow water banking in the county’s aquifers. Read part one.)


On its surface, the idea of banking water to bridge the certainty of future rain-deficient periods seems like an innovative and non-controversial planning procedure. In the end, however, it all depends on who holds the keys to the bank.

The notion of water banking has grabbed local attention lately following a controversial and divided 3-2 vote March 3 by San Luis Obispo County supervisors, a vote which numerous North County entities view as opening the door to selling and exporting county water resources to the highest outside bidder.

Supervisor Lynn Compton’s vote was the deciding one on an amendment to the county’s water policy that would, among other things, “utilize storage locations other than San Luis Reservoir as an exchange and transfer point.”

“That ‘other’ location is the Paso Robles Water Basin,” said North County businessman Erik Gorham. “There are not a lot of other places to store that water in this county.”

The basin is the largest west of the Rockies, and a prime target of would-be water exporters.

Compton’s vote earned her a quick rebuke from fellow Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who opposed the amendment. Arnold told KVEC 920 Home Town radio show host Dave Congalton that Compton “does not understand the issue.”

Compton earlier had told Congalton that her vote had “nothing to do with water banking.” She asserted she was supporting the measure because “people in my district need the water.” She also suggested she has no plans to change her vote.

“Her vote is a chink in the armor” protecting against outside exploitation of the local water supply,” Gorham said. “She may think it was just one vote, what’s the big deal. But this one was on the biggest issue facing the North County.

“If water is ‘banked’ from an outside source, that water belongs to the ‘banker’ and the once-available space has been taken,” Gorham told Congalton. “Overliers like ranchers, farmers and the city of Paso Robles no longer have access to that space.”

A CalCoastNews report in 2014 addressed water banking and its local potential future:

“Little San Luis Obispo County is poised to become a major player in the West’s high-stakes water future, even while local land-owning water users fret about declining supplies stressed by an increasingly voracious agricultural thirst.

“Meanwhile, strategies of a variety of county water users — their anxieties exacerbated by a deep and persistent drought — are competing for control of the biggest component of this county’s water storage capability, the Paso Robles water basin.

“And now, the basin is being considered by some powerful entities for utilization as a ‘water bank.’”

In his commentary on Congalton’s show, Gorham mentioned water developers’ ultra-long-term planning.

Graphically illustrating that level of developer patience is an incident that took place nearly 50 years ago.

The state’s director of water resources in the early 1970s was William R. (“Bill”) Gianelli, a fiery fellow with little patience for environmentalists and others who belonged to what he called “the anti-development crowd.” Gianelli was promoting a huge public works project called the Peripheral Canal, a 43-mile-long overland transfer facility designed to move Northern California water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to flow south via the State Water Project.

At every turn, Gianelli’s plan was taking heavy political fire. But he had an end run on his mind. He teamed up with Sam Nelson, then the state’s director of transportation, in a secretive move designed to get the project started. (Gianelli described his plan in a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s oral history interview conducted in 1994 by George Petershagen and Dr. Donald B. Seney.)

To Nelson, Gianelli said, “I have a bright idea: Why don’t we, along the alignment of the Peripheral Canal — you could use that as a borrow area — and we’ll take the borrow from the bottom of the Peripheral Canal and use it for the construction of Interstate 5. In the meantime we’ll have the Peripheral Canal partly constructed by virtue of those borrow areas.

“A borrow area is an area from which you extract material to build a freeway. It’s a hole in the ground. So I’m saying, ‘You highway guys, you’ve got to take this borrow material from the route of the Peripheral Canal, and that’ll do two things: It’ll save us five million bucks of money because it’s a joint facility. It makes a lot of sense, and it’ll guarantee that that canal’s going to be built. If you got it half-built, politicians can’t resist it.’”

Just get the door open, he said.

As a matter of fact, both politicians and voters did resist the project plan… for a time.

Today, a half-century later, the project concept is back — or never really left — and it’s bigger and more complex than ever. It’s now proposed as the “Peripheral Tunnels,” two giant pipes under the Delta.

In the water development business, patience is a virtue second only to outright confiscation.

Gorham pointed to a proposal floated during recent months from the Shandon-San Juan Water District, which seeks to control “certain storm water that may accrue during wet years” in Naciemiento and San Antonio reservoirs, and store it in the Paso Robles basin. He suggested it reflects the start of long-term planning.

The small district’s board of directors has made this promise: “The district has made it clear in our application that we will deliver the water to the aquifer through direct recharge and recover it when needed for agricultural use. The district will ensure that any water which we successfully obtain through these water rights applications will be recovered and used exclusively within our groundwater basin, and that such recovery and use will not contribute to overdraft of the basin.”

“Yeah. Sure,” Gorham said, his thoughts likely echoed by a legion of North County water users.

SLO County supervisors Compton, Arnold and Peschong voted recently to oppose the Shandon-San Juan Water District’s application to the state for those water rights. Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Dawn Ortiz-Legg dissented.

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Monterey County has prior rights, and entitlements. The Salinas River flows north, not south and SLO’s south county developers only have hind tit access to that water. The talk of a water bank is only a trick to sell water from elsewhere “the neighboring property owner’s Overlayer Water Rights” a taking without compensation. This slide of the hand reminds me of the Federal Reserve Bank, a NOT Federal Bank that loans the USA money that we don’t have, yet we pay the interest. You can’t print water but a greater amount is routinely sold than can be delivered.

Suggest that in the next redistricting the North County is presence in three districts.

Great piece! Give ‘em hell, Dano!

Good reporting, Dan. Thank you.

Water rights, did Compton, Arnold and Peschong, Gibson or Ortiz-Legg ancestors bring water with them when they came to California? Who owned those rights before or at least the majority of them – yes, the Native Americans and the Pueblos all by agreement with the US Federal Government in perpetuity. Local farmers draw more water than is replenished from their land daily for their water thirsty grapes, for their cattle also. Review the US Supreme Court Case concerning Denver Colorado for an eye opening education. Or review the Winters Doctrine, Agua Caliente Band v. Coachella Valley Water District et al decision, the concept of paper water rights vs. actual wet water, the doctrines of riparian water rights and appropriative rights, case law on ground water extraction versus impacts to neighboring communities due to salt water intrusion, reasonable use standard vs. waste, overlying landowner rights vs. usufructuary, Correlative Rights and Appropriative Groundwater Rights, etal. Then there is the SGMA and its related regulations. However, when it all comes down to it Native Americans and Puebloans rights according to the US Supreme Court are first rights. You are fighting over something that you do not own, much less control.

Then there is the whole concept touted around San Luis that we are not like Southern California we have our own water. Not true, the City of San Luis Obispo imports all of its water from North County and even from the Southern Monterey County Watershed. San Francisco imports all of its water from the bay area. Thus, we are all guilty of relying upon imported water to some extent or circumventing the rights of others for our own needs – water, grapes, and all industries reliant upon the concept of tourism related to the wine industry. Throw in the mix the political whores whose sole objective is to line their pockets all under the auspices of doing what is in the best interest of the community or county and it is a virtual quagmire. We all sit in the back of the bus telling the whores what we want, what we expect, what we need with no true regard for what is in the long-term best interest of the community and yes that community unfortunately includes the entire State. As water becomes scarcer and more communities restrict and eliminate outside watering more people will leave the state and the economy here will suffer from it.

Now throw into the mix, sink holes are appearing all over north county and wells are drying up and well diggers are digging deeper and deeper wells. Ah yes, the unlimited natural resource does have its limits and we have exceeded them. So much for our kids’ future! Maybe the local Cities should turn wastewater into drinking water for residents in those communities. Maybe we should stop water bottling companies from exporting over a 100,000,000 gallons of State water without any Permit, without any fees being paid to anyone to help solve our water crisis. The Nestle family, or that is the heirs of the Nestle fortune all make billions annually exporting California water and pay nothing for that commodity other than pumping and bottling cost.

Lastly, 90% of the ground water in this state is contaminated and deemed unsafe for one of the five beneficial uses, including drinking yet people drink it every day. Now let’s now inject contaminated surface water into our ground water system – that makes a whole or whore lot of sense for the future.

Your points are devastatingly spot-on. Corporate water will destroy California. (Or has it already?)

Read the book: Upstream Water Rights by I. P. Freely.

As a County why don’t we, the citizens, just decide to tax the hell out of any out of district water transfer? Negate the profit motive for the wannabe water Barons.

A tax on appropriated water (water taken out of the aquifer) … interesting idea. But it is 3 to 2.

Oh, for Pete’s sake! At least do your homework when you make a factual statement like “The basin is the largest west of the Rockies…” It is not. It is dwarfed by several of the subbasins in the San Joaquin Valley and last I checked, they too, are west of the Rockies.

That’s all you got?

The Paso Robles Water Basin is the largest natural aquifer west of the Rockies. In part, the reason being the Salinas River supplies much of it and the Salinas is the largest underground river in the U.S.

Who said anything about subbasins? Stay on point rellim.

Just like with Crypto Currencies you can see there’s no way to abuse this system for personal gain. (sarcasm).

My understanding is that the Peripheral Canal brought water down one side of the valley and brought natural salt laden water back around to the Delta. Salt being a huge problem in sustaining long term farming. If I remember right this was a Gerry Brown project that never gained the political traction to get funded.