Profile: John Neil, Atascadero Mutual Water Company
Civil engineer John Neil, manager of the Atascadero Mutual Water Company, and devoted trout fisherman, has the stature and ruddy complexion of an outdoorsman. His gentle but firm handshake and the twinkle in his clear blue eyes makes you smile. At first, his deferential manner reminds you of that nice kid who took your daughter to the prom, but after listening to him simplify complex water issues you realize that he’s a man with certainty in his science.
John loves dealing with water company customers and the hydrology associated with water management. Admittedly enamored with the hundred year history of the water company, he describes it as private, non-profit and shareholder driven. Property owners in the Atascadero Colony, which was originally a 24,000 acre ranch owned by E.G. Lewis, are the shareholders.
“E.G. Lewis preserved the water rights for property owners a hundred years ago. He deeded the rights to the land before any subdividing took place,” John states.
The water company has wells that tap into the Atascadero underground water basin which John explains is, “a hydro-geologically distinct sub-area separated from the main Paso Robles Ground Water Basin by the Rinconada Fault line.” He hands me a cross-section drawing done in 2002 by geologists Fugro West and Cleath and Associates which shows a marked land divide between the Paso Robles basin and the Atascadero basin.
He keeps close track of water in his district, pulling out graphs of rainfall and well water levels from 1915 to present day. He says that in the 1970’s the water used for alfalfa irrigation then is comparable to that being pumped by vineyards today. However, John points out that the difference is in the distance from the source of water like the Salinas River which is re-charged by rainfall that then seeps underground to area wells. Alfalfa field wells used to be close to the river whereas the vineyards are a much greater distance away and therefore have wells which are much slower to re-charge.
John claims that our current three year drought is not uncommon when looking at past rainfall patterns and pulls out a graph covering the last hundred years. He says that Lake Nacimiento, from which the city of San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Templeton, and Atascadero draw water over and above their well water, is a huge watershed area that fills up very quickly in good rain years. As an example he points out that when the Lake was first made in 1959, it was dry but then filled up completely after one good rain. Now, the lake is only 16% full, but according to John, there is still over 60,000 acre feet available for pumping. He compares Santa Margarita Lake at only 25,000 acre feet when completely full.
Because recent drought conditions brought conservation issues to the forefront, the Atascadero Mutual Water Company asked its shareholders to cut back on water usage. John proudly announced that there was a 20% reduction in water use, and as a result, they have not had to pump any water from Lake Nacimiento since June this year. He claims that the 31,000 shareholders in the water company are okay for water in the foreseeable future.
On weekends, when John Neil, isn’t swimming in the issues of conservation and water usage, he heads out to his shop in the back yard and builds things. When time permits, he and his wife Pam, an emergency room nurse, ride their horses through the Sierra Nevada wilderness to camp and fish for trout in pristine mountain lakes.
John Neil is happy to speak with anyone about water issues. He can be reached at The Atascadero Mutual Water Company, (805)466-2428.
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