Vineyard owners, others rally to establish California Water District

jlynem@thetribunenews.comJuly 29, 2013 

The way to replenish the Paso Robles groundwater basin is not to impose restrictions on the agricultural community, but to push for a California Water District that would have the power to establish short-term and long-term solutions to stabilize the aquifer.

That’s the message from the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, a group of vineyard owners and other agriculturalists who want to establish a special district that could obtain loans to help people dig deeper wells, as well as fund projects to get supplemental water.

The association, also known as PRAAGS, hosted an informational meeting Monday at the Paso Robles Inn, where they encouraged a crowd of more than 300 people to speak with a unified voice to stop the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors from adopting emergency ordinances that could place limits on land use or pumping.

“We don’t want to presume to tell you what to think, but we want you to be informed, be involved and show up,” said the chairman of the group, Jerry Reaugh, who urged the audience to attend the Aug. 6 Board of Supervisors meeting. “Let the supervisors know what you think.”

In early July, the board heard from ag community representatives, as well as a vocal group of rural residential homeowners seeking immediate action to stop the basin’s declining water levels. The supervisors then directed staff to research options for an urgency ordinance that would reduce demand on the basin while also researching more permanent solutions.

Calling the proposed urgency ordinance “draconian,” PRAAGS treasurer John Crossland asked county leaders not to rush to adopt an ordinance “before it’s vetted well,” and cautioned that such measures could put many growers out of business.

“If these things alarm you, then email, call, politely harass,” he said. “If ever there’s a time to say ‘We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore,’ this is it.”

There’s a better way to ensure there’s enough water for agriculture and residential users, said PRAAGS members, and they said they have the financial means and backing of experts to bring a water district to fruition.

In addition to hiring John Hollenbeck, a civil engineer who managed the Nacimiento water project, the association is working with attorney and water district expert Ernest Cohen to help craft the framework for a California Water District, which would be governed by an elected board of directors. The district provides voting proportional to land ownership.

Landowners would not be forced to support a district, the group said, because of Prop. 218, which says all assessments and charges on property owners are subject to approval of those to be assessed.

The group plans to circulate a petition made up of landowner signatures that would initiate the California Water District process. The petition would then go to the Local Agency Formation Commission, or, LAFCO, for approval to have an election to form a district encompassing 240,000 acres of rural land.

Members hope to have the petition completed by year’s end.

But not everyone in the crowd was sold on the idea of the group’s proposal.

Dianne Jackson, a member of ProWater Equity, a coalition of groundwater basin users also seeking a solution to the declining water levels, said the meeting made it clear who wants control. 

"It's the largest landowners and there was absolutely no consideration for owners of properties of less acreage," she said. 

She also was concerned that no one addressed conservation or what grape growers planned to do to limit planting. Moreover, she left the meeting unclear about what the structure or function of the California Water District would be. 

"I guess I would hope it's not too late for everyone to come to the table with their ideas, but it may well be," she said. 

Michael Baugh, a resident of rural Paso Robles, did not question the need for a water district, but asked whether voting had to be based on the amount of a landowner’s wealth instead of “one person, one vote.”

Baugh said he was leery because such a district would put the power in the hands of larger land owners “who don’t live in the district.”

“A more appropriate solution is a county water district,” he noted.

Until a more long-term solution is found, some speakers suggested that rural residential owners ban together to resolve their problems by establishing a mutual water district or agreeing to help a neighbor in need.

“For now, folks that are really hurting could be helped by a simple agreement (to share water),” said Doug Filipponi, a North County wine grape grower and co-owner of Ancient Peaks Winery in Santa Margarita.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold told the audience that solving the water issue posed a “huge challenge,” and that she is communicating with all sides -- rural residents, agriculturalists and experts -- to better understand what needs to be done to protect the interest of rural residents and ag business.

“We were the Wild West of water use,” Arnold said. “We were able to drill for water all this time. Now demand has met up with supply.”

 

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