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P.V. water board says no to pumping limits

Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel

WATSONVILLE - Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.

That was the consensus a majority of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency board as it grappled Wednesday with the question of restricting groundwater pumping to force conservation.

"That's a hard sell to do it that way, legally and every other way," said Rosemarie Imazio, chair of the agency's board of directors.

The agency, created in the mid-1980s after years of overdraft, is charged with balancing pumping and recharge in the basin. But overdraft continues, causing a growing problem of seawater intrusion as freshwater supplies dwindle. The agency is in the process of revising its plan to solve the problem. But state water quality officials are worried the resulting plan won't be strong enough to stop the overdraft and raised the question of what would trigger the agency to consider pumping restrictions.

The agency is scheduled to report on its progress toward a solution to the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board on Feb. 2.

Roger Briggs, executive officer of the regional board, said Pajaro Valley leaders should be focusing on conservation rather than big expensive projects. In July, he wrote the agency urging it to think about the point at which pumping limits would be imposed, and, though stressing the desire for a cooperative approach, warned state officials could intervene if overdraft isn't reduced.

Wednesday, Briggs acknowledged the letter contained a "little bit of rattling of the sword, but this problem has been going on a long time, and because of a disconnect between the likely solutions that will come about versus the amount of overdraft."

The agency's lawyer, Tony Condotti, told the board while it had the authority to impose limits under such criteria as unreasonable or wasteful use, such an action would without a doubt spark legal challenges based on water rights of property owners. It could also trigger an "expensive and cumbersome" adjudication, where a judge would decide how much water would be allotted to each user.

"There is a very comprehensive set of challenges the agency would encounter in imposing some sort of pumping restrictions," Condotti said.

Director Dennis Osmer wondered if something short of wholesale limits could be considered as a way to enforce conservation, such as shutting off the water in cases of waste or inefficient use.

But there seemed to be little appetite for such a plan.

Vice Chair Dave Cavanaugh, who owns a plant nursery, said agriculture, which uses 85 percent of the groundwater supplies, is already making strides in conservation. He also questioned whether the agency wanted to make judgments about what was beneficial water use.

"Do we want to preserve a community that's built on agriculture and develop projects we can all benefit from or single out some people and chase them out of business?" Cavanaugh asked.

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