Are water bankers eyeing Paso Robles Water Basin?

(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.