Time to Deliver State Water to North County

The water shortage in Northern San Luis Obispo County requires both short- and long-term strategic thinking and an understanding that there are no simple solutions.

mguerreroBy MATTHEW GUERRERO, Oceano Community Services District Board President

The water shortage in Northern San Luis Obispo County requires both short- and long-term strategic thinking and an understanding that there are no simple solutions. There is no single answer that can be the sole solution for the problem. Careful consideration of this situation must include the following three-part analysis.

In 1963 the Board of Supervisors procured 25,000 acre feet of water annually from the California State Water Project for San Luis Obispo County. Since that time, many communities in San Luis Obispo County have chosen to take State Water. The largest participants include Pismo Beach, San Luis Obispo, Avila Beach and Avila Valley, Morro Bay, San Miguelito and Oceano. This was an expensive and lengthy process and was a politically charged issue at the time. Many communities declined State Water; some of those communities even voting against taking state water. Those declining delivery of State Water include the communities of Nipomo, Arroyo Grande, Grover Beach, Cambria, San Simeon, Los Osos, Atascadero and Paso Robles. The communities that purchased the water were responsible for funding the infrastructure for water delivery. This is mainly accomplished via pipeline that runs from the North County through the South County. Currently, of the 25,000 acre feet allocated annually, 9,727 acre feet is reserved by the participating communities. This means that there is a little over 15,000 acre feet that is not yet reserved and presumably available to service the North County.

By way of background, an acre foot of water is a rule of thumb to provide for three homes for a period of one year and is about 326,000 gallons. The contract with the State of California for State Water is a “take or pay” contract. This means that the county pays for the water regardless of whether or not it is used. There are difficulties in bringing State Water to any of the communities not currently participating in the State Water Project, the most notable being delivery. The good news is that the State Water Project already runs through the North County and is located near Highway 46. The bad news is that the pipelines, already engineered and in place, reportedly do not have the capacity to carry as much additional water as is needed for the North County.

The North County would have to pay for the development and infrastructure to deliver the water to where it could be distributed to the citizens and businesses. Engineering and construction of water lines are estimated to range upward of $2 million per mile. For example, currently the City of Paso Robles is working on a water treatment plant for the water they draw from Lake Nacimiento. Paso Robles also draws from Basin wells and Salinas River wells. Paso Robles’ current entitlements from Lake Nacimiento are 4,000 acre feet. This does not include the water pumped by private or commercial property owners who are using well water.

Even bringing State Water to Paso Robles does little short-term good for those who do not have the city infrastructure to deliver it to their property and are still dependent upon wells. It will take years of responsible water management to restore the Basin’s water levels and reducing the threat to private wells. Further, 15,000 acre feet is not enough water, even assuming full delivery, to meet the current needs of the North County. Estimates of the need for water are in the neighborhood of 30,000 acre feet per year. Procuring State Water for the North County only solves about half the problem.

Additionally, State Water is also subject to State Government regulation, and the amount of water actually available for delivery varies from year to year. For example, State Water contractors will often get a percentage of their entitlement, though it can sometimes be supplemented with “drought buffer”. Even with a reduced percentage being delivered, the California State Water Project is considered a reliable source of water. The State Water Project provides supplemental water to approximately 25 million Californians and approximately 750,000 acres of irrigated farmland. Approximately 70% of State Water goes to urban users, with agriculture using the difference.

Since San Luis Obispo County already has procured and paid for these entitlements, State Water should be made available for the residents and businesses in northern San Luis Obispo County.

Paso Robles Sewage Treatment Plant Should Contribute to the Water Basin

The current Paso Robles Sewage Treatment Plant is not compliant with state or federal standards and is being replaced with a new $50 million plant. This plant upgrade is incomplete without the ability to produce recycled water. Currently, the State Water Board exercises general oversight over recycled water projects, including review of Regional Water Board permitting practices, and leads the effort to meet the recycled water use goals. These goals include increasing the use of recycled water in California by 200,000 acre feet per year by 2020 and by an additional 300,000 acre feet per year by 2030. This is to be achieved through the cooperation and collaboration of the State Water Board, the Regional Water Boards, the environmental community, water purveyors, and the operators of publicly owned treatment works. In the future, recycled water will be a critical resource for the state based on a number of factors, including providing a local sustainable supply, a means to reduce energy and carbon footprints, a means of dealing with climate change, the increased pressure due to population growth and drought, and the cost of developing new potable water supplies.

Currently, the Paso Robles plant is permitted to discharge approximately three million gallons of treated effluent into the Salinas River every day. It is a short distance from the discharge plant to the ocean, where the three million gallons of effluent are lost. The new Paso Robles Sanitation Plant should research discharging their three million gallons up the Salinas River so that the discharged effluent can be absorbed into the ground and recharge the water basin. Another viable option, though more expensive, is to treat the effluent to a tertiary level. Tertiary treatment is additional treatment beyond secondary treatment, to which the effluent is already treated. Tertiary treatment can remove more than 99 percent of all the impurities from sewage, producing an effluent that is almost drinking-water quality. If treated to tertiary level, though expensive, this water could be used for crops and irrigation and lessen the demand on the Basin, thus preserving the Basin and protecting the water supply for current and future generations.

According to the California Department of Public Health, regulations are being developed that address groundwater replenishment for aquifers designated as sources of drinking water using recycled water from domestic wastewater sources. In 2011, revised draft regulations were released and workshops were held throughout the state. Once these regulations are adopted, they would replace the existing regulations, which were adopted in 1978. The state is currently developing the remainder of the regulation package. The existing Water Code requires the Department of Public Health to adopt revised groundwater replenishment regulations by December 31, 2013, and regulations for surface water augmentation by December 31, 2016. Nevertheless, proposed projects for groundwater replenishment (and surface water augmentation) continue to move forward. Paso Robles has the opportunity and obligation to protect their valuable water resources.

In fairness, the San Miguel, Shandon and Templeton should join the Paso Robles treatment plant in treating waste water to a level at which it can be reintroduced to the groundwater supply.

Whether recycling water, going to tertiary treatment, or discharging farther up the Salinas River, the possible solutions are expensive, but necessary. The water leaving the North County treatment plants is a resource and should not be literally flushed down the drain.

It Has Proven Necessary to Adjudicate the Basin

Unfortunately the business interests and the urban water users are lining up against each other for access to water. This tension should be avoided as the economic wellbeing of each is inextricably tied to water and to each other. A healthy basin is essential to the continued prosperity and growth of each group. Economic insults to one group will adversely affect the other. This should be addressed through the courts. This will be helpful to the North County to protect and monitor the Basin and the end-users.

Adjudication will mean that the amount of water that can be extracted is defined by court order or stipulation. In basins where each landowner’s right has been defined, groundwater may be managed by agencies that obtain their authority from the Water Code. Depending upon the situation, there may be significant, little or no management.

Not surprisingly, adjudication is an expensive and lengthy process. For example, in South San Luis Obispo County, the Northern Cities Management entered into a stipulated agreement in 2002, after years of litigation. This group continues to issue annual monitoring reports and local elected officials participate in its management and operation. This group provides valuable information to the public and member agencies regarding land and water uses in the basin, the sources of supply to meet those uses and the ground water conditions. Given the large number urban and agricultural users, as well as the basin’s inability to meet the current and foreseeable demand, self-regulation by the users is not proving to be a viable option. The expense to the Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, Nipomo, Oceano, and Santa Maria has reached $20 Million in14 years.

Without court supervision, there may be no remedy for those who wells run dry.


There are no easy answers. Solutions are costly. Economic vitality is at stake. Even if we sustain above-average rainfall for several years in a row, the Paso Robles Basin will not be restored to full health; the problems being experienced right now will be repeated, over and over. Rather than just viewing the condition of the water basin as a tension between commercial and urban interests, we must learn to see it as a problem of supply and demand. There is a deficit. When the Federal Government has a deficit, the Treasury can print more money. We do not have the ability to make more water fall from the sky. This means that we, as a regional community, have to use our resources more wisely and utilize resources that we already have for new purposes. It will be expensive. Funding these projects will cost money and political capital. Failure to do so will cost much more.

Matthew Guerrero is an Attorney at Law and is also the Board Chair of South San Luis Obispo Sanitation District