Local cities and agencies use a third of what the county signed up for in 1963; county to study options for excess

Originally published in the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Friday, August 18, 2006, page A1

For more than 30 years, San Luis Obispo County property owners have been paying for water that could supply more than 50,000 homes, even though the county only uses about a third of that.

Faced with the possibility of losing the water, however, the county has obtained $250,000 in state grants to find a place for the excess water. Although the contract with the state doesn’t expire until 2035, county officials are worried now because a solution could take years to implement.

“Since we have not put the water to beneficial use, we could be at risk (of losing it),” said Paavo Ogren, deputy director of public works for the county.

There are two main options: The county could store the more than 16,500 acre-feet in the Paso Robles groundwater basin or sell it to another water agency outside the county.

The focus on the state water supply comes as some local communities are scrambling for new water sources. North County cities and San Luis Obispo are planning to tap Nacimiento Lake, Cambria is exploring desalination and the Nipomo Community Services District is arranging to get water from Santa Maria.

The county signed up with the state in 1963 for 25,000 acre-feet of water a year, but cities and other local water agencies, some leery of possible growth and worried about the cost, only reserved about 8,500 acre-feet of that. An acre-foot of water serves two to three homes for a year in the hot North County and four to five homes on the cooler coast.

What to do with the other 16,500 acre-feet is the question of the moment.

“The cost of water is just going up and up and up, so we’re trying to find a way to utilize it now and to keep it,” said Courtney Howard, water resources engineer for the county.

Local property owners have paid $27 million since 1963 for access to the annual allotment. The county signed up for the 25,000 acre-feet based on growth and usage projections that turned out to be wrong, Howard said.

Both options under consideration have drawbacks.

Banking the water in the Paso Robles groundwater basin could be expensive because of the cost to build and install the necessary pipes or wells, Howard said.

Some of that cost could be avoided if the county arranged to give farmers access to the state water. In that scenario, the farmers would not use the groundwater they usually pump out for agriculture.

Or, the county could sell the water rights to another agency.

However, the county does not want to sell on a permanent basis in case the local need grows, Ogren said. There is a debate among California water experts about whether contracts with the state even allow a temporary sale, he said.

The 16,500 acre-feet of water won’t help thirsty communities such as Cambria and Nipomo. Pipelines to bring state water to those areas were never built and are too expensive to build now.

Cambria, for example, turned down state water in 1987 in part because it would have cost $16 million for the pipeline.

The main purpose of the state water is to protect San Luis Obispo County from droughts, Ogren said. It is possible that the water could be used to accommodate future growth, but it isn’t a reliable supply because it’s dependent on precipitation.

The state water project brings water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the southern part of the state. The state doesn’t control how local jurisdictions use the water they have signed up for.

“What a district does with that water is its business,” said Don Strickland, spokesman at the California Department of Water Resources.

A final report from county staff is expected to be complete and submitted to the Board of Supervisors by January 2008. The public will then have the opportunity to comment.