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Judge rules Atascadero sub-basin part of Paso Robles basin 

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–Santa Clara Superior Court Judge Peter Kirwan, presiding over a quiet title lawsuit filed by a group of North County landowners, ruled Wednesday that the Atascadero sub-basin is part of the larger Paso Robles basin. Wednesday’s ruling follows a Jan. 22 determination by Kirwan that the county has not proved the Paso Robles basin is in overdraft.

The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, the formation of a local groundwater management district and landowner water rights have been topics of contention since the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors enacted a drought emergency Ordinance 3246 in August 2013. The Atascadero sub-basin was excluded in Section 2 of this ordinance. Paso Robles vineyard owner Cindy Steinbeck and 600 other individuals and entities responded to the ordinance by filing a quiet title lawsuit seeking to protect their water rights.

Atascadero Mutual Water Company (AMWC) General Manager John Neil says he doesn’t expect any changes as a result of Wednesday’s ruling. Neil says that the water rights were deeded to the water district in 1913. “Orignally we were one large ranch. The owner, E.G. Lewis, created the water company then deeded the water rights.”

The AMWC and the Templeton Community Services District (TCSD) pump water from the Atascadero sub-basin. The AMWC serves more than 30,000 Atascadero residents with over 10,000 service connections. The TCSD maintains approximately 40 miles of water lines, nine wells and one standby, four storage tanks with a combined capacity of 2.7 million gallons, serving 2,037 water connections and approximately 5,400 people. Defendants in the Steinbeck lawsuit include AMWC and TCSD as well as San Luis Obispo County and the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Paso Robles and San Miguel Community Services District.

When asked how Wednesday’s ruling will effect the TCSD water service, Templeton Community Services District General Manager Jeff Britz issued the following statement:

Yesterday’s ruling by Judge Kirwan was limited to the issue of what areas should be included in the Steinbeck groundwater lawsuit. It only addressed the district’s request to limit the lawsuit against the district to the plaintiffs who are located in the Atascadero area around the district. It also is not final. Throughout the lawsuit, the Steinbeck landowners have told the court that it is a limited quiet title case and does not involve more complex management issues. The ruling has no bearing on the management of the Atascadero or Paso Robles areas and no impact on the district’s available water supply. The undisputed evidence during the trial indicated that there is little to no possibility that groundwater pumping in the Atascadero area could affect groundwater in the broader Paso Robles area or vice versa. The district will continue to provide our customers with water services using a combination of groundwater, percolated treated wastewater, percolated Nacimiento Pipeline water, and Salinas River underflow.

Cindy Steinbeck said the next step is a case management conference on March 11. “We won’t know what is next until after that conference.”

On Feb. 8, the TCSD Board of Directors announced a public meeting for March 1 on the proposed modification of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Boundary. The TCSD is also considering authorizing an application for a scientific basin boundary modification to separate the Atascadero Basin from the Paso Robles Basin.

Whether or not to form the Paso Robles Ground Basin Water District within the proposed boundaries is part of the Measure B-16 ballot for the March 8 Paso Robles Groundwater Basin special election.  Measure B-16 proposes to establish a groundwater management district within boundaries that are different than those established by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) Bulletin-118.  Ballots for the special vote-by-mail election to form the  groundwater management district, fund the district (Measure A-16), and elect a board of directors are in the mail to landowners and registered voters. The special election was approved by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Directors in November 2015. San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong said that the ruling on Wednesday will not change the number of ballots being mailed, the March 8 date or the process for this election. How elections are conducted is governed by the California Elections Code.

The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin special election is one of the local outcomes of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) signed into law by Governor Brown in September 2014. The SGMA amended the California Water Code to encourage local agencies to work cooperatively to manage groundwater resources within their jurisdictions and to provide a methodology for developing a groundwater management plan.

Read more Paso Robles Daily News coverage about the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin:

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About the author: Reporter Jackie Iddings

Jackie Iddings is a contributing reporter and photographer for the Paso Robles Daily News.

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