A five-year drought continued to affect all areas of California in 2016, but was particularly severe in San Luis Obispo County. The increased severity in our area was due, in part, to our region’s heavy reliance on groundwater, as well as the fact that the agricultural industry is a major contributor to our local economy. Read below to discover how the County worked to address groundwater and other water-related issues in 2016.

Working with Private Well Owners

Groundwater levels continued to decline in 2016 and water quality for private water well systems across San Luis Obispo County were affected by the persistent drought. In order to address water-quality issues, the County’s Environmental Health Services team provided guidance and support to residents. The County also waived fees to replace dry wells within certain groundwater basins and in areas that were impacted by the Chimney Fire.

Because private water wells are not managed or maintained by the County or other public agencies, private well owners are encouraged to test the quality of their water annually. Well water can potentially contain either natural or man-made pollutants, which is why it is so important for well owners to have their water tested whenever contamination is suspected or if there is a noticeable change in taste or appearance of the water.

To help local businesses and residences who have private water well systems in 2016, the County developed a Well Owners Checklist and produced a video (watch it below) that demonstrates how to do many of the tasks on the checklist.

Creating A Groundwater Management Program

ground water basinmap

The State’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) took effect on January 1, 2015 and substantially changed the way groundwater is managed in California.

This new law requires the creation of new Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, which must be formed by June 30, 2017 in six groundwater basins in San Luis Obispo County. The agencies are tasked with developing a plan to manage the basins, which must be implemented within 20 years of a plan’s adoption.

However, the law leaves many of the details related to the establishment of these agencies and the development of plans up to locals.

With the adoption of its SGMA Strategy in 2015, the County of San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors directed Public Works Department staff to help establish community-focused agencies in order to comply with SGMA requirements

As staff members worked toward this objective, they also attended or led more than 100 meetings related to this groundwater management law in 2016. This is in addition to providing regular updates on the law to more than seven local advisory committees and other organizations, and keeping up on SGMA regulations from the State via more than 15 State-led meetings.

Through these collaborations, Groundwater Sustainability Agency agreements were created, and when signed, will be a critical step toward Sustainable Groundwater Management in San Luis Obispo County.

The County also successfully obtained a $250,000 grant to help offset the costs of developing the agreements and technical information for two of the basins.

Through its data collection program, the County provides technical services that will help agencies comply with SGMA and inform water management decisions. For example, the County partnered with more than 300 well owners to collect groundwater-level information in order to develop a report on long-term and seasonal groundwater basin condition trends that will be published in 2017.


Use the Interactive Map of Groundwater Basins in San Luis Obispo County below to navigate around the groundwater basins that are subject to SGMA by panning, zooming, or searching for a specific parcel or street address.

There are different layers that show boundaries of groundwater basins, cities, roads, and SGMA-eligible entities.

water map

As part of its data collection program related to groundwater management, the County also partnered with neighboring counties to join a shared, modern network and provide real-time water data to the public.

This data includes rainfall maps, tables and summaries, current levels of local streams, and capacity levels of local reservoirs.

Managing Stormwater in SLO County

Most people are surprised to learn that stormwater is the leading cause of water pollution in the nation. Stormwater is rain that runs off streets, parking lots, sidewalks, rooftops, construction sites and other surfaces. This water goes down storm drains and then flows into creeks or directly into the ocean.

Stormwater is not treated before it enters the creeks or ocean; whatever material the water collects as it runs off the streets, parking lots, your property, or construction site, ends up in the creek or ocean. Because of this, the County is required to implement a Stormwater Management Program.

The County worked with other agencies to address stormwater as a resource in San Luis Obispo County in 2016. Together, these organizations applied for and were awarded a planning grant to offset costs to further develop a region-wide Stormwater Resource Plan.

Regional Water Management Program

RWMG Member Agency Categories
The general makeup of the Regional Water Management Group.

Another way the County addressed water needs in 2016 included partnering with 25 members of the Regional Water Management Group and five other agencies to implement the Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, which was adopted in 2014.

The goal is to improve the County’s resiliency in the face of uncertain water resources and climate change, improve water reliability, and establish and maintain sustainable groundwater practices.

In 2016, the groups worked together to develop and execute a cooperative agreement that will allow the region to pursue almost $8 million in grant funding non-competitively, bringing total grant funding to $33 million to address local water-related challenges.

What are the challenges?

water goals and objectives graphicSan Luis Obispo County faces several water-related challenges.

The County is located in a relatively dry part of the state and is subject to uncertain and changing water conditions.

At the same time, the constantly changing water demands create a challenging planning environment and increase competition for finite water supplies.

The region also has a limited ability to generate local funding to develop new projects and struggles to identify regional opportunities to take advantage of economies of scale. Meanwhile, local surface water supplies are limited, and imported water supplies are expensive.

But perhaps the greatest challenge is that groundwater has been relied upon too heavily in our region, leading to the need for increased and sustainable water management to maintain both water quantity and water quality.

North Coast Priority Issues
In the North Coast, the most pressing water issues identified by the Regional Water Management Group include water reclamation from wastewater treatment, sustainable water supplies, and addressing seawater intrusion into fresh groundwater aquifers. These issues reflect the need for increasing water supply reliability in part through water reuse and recycling opportunities, and decreasing groundwater pumping in the coastal groundwater basins.

South County Priority Issues
In the South County, the most pressing water issues identified by the Regional Water Management Group include groundwater management, flood control, water reclamation from wastewater treatment, and adaptation to climate change. Flood control and adaptation to the impacts of climate change were identified as more pressing issues here compared to the other sub-Regions.

North County Priority Issues
In the North County, the most pressing water issues identified by Regional Water Management Group include groundwater management, water supply, and groundwater quality. These issues reflect the need for increasing the overall water supply in part through better groundwater management, which includes providing additional supplies for combined use with surface water or groundwater recharge.

The County has been working with, and will continue to work with, the Regional Water Management Group to address these issues as part of Integrated Regional Water Management Plan.