Plan for California Water District stirs debate in North County

jlynem@thetribunenews.comAugust 30, 2013 

With the goal of stabilizing the Paso Robles groundwater basin, a group of private North County agriculturalists is gearing up to establish a California Water District, which they say is the best choice to protect the aquifer for years to come.

The organization, Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, is preparing to circulate a formal petition within the next month, the first step in getting the go-ahead from the Local Agency Formation Commission for approval to have an election to form the district, which would be charged with managing groundwater and overseeing conservation efforts of those in the basin.

“If we don’t get a water district, we’re just committing ourselves to more agony and nothing getting done,” said Jerry Reaugh, chairman of the group, who believes the county is not the appropriate place for a regional issue to be housed.

But the move is in spite of strong opposition from those who say a California Water District would unfairly tip the balance in favor of the largest landowners. The effort coincides with work by the basin’s Blue-Ribbon Steering Committee set up by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to find an appropriate governance structure.

County supervisors have directed Public Works to develop recommendations for the formation of some kind of water district in the next 45 days.

Paavo Ogren, county public works director, said the county has not determined yet which path to take. County staff must first figure out what a management agency overlying the basin would seek to accomplish before it evaluates the various options, said Ogren, noting that PRAAGS’ pursuit of a California Water District does not conflict with the county’s work.

Reaugh said he believes “very strongly that this is the proper solution to start improving the situation.”

“It’s a proven mechanism,” he said.

Building support

While the alliance remains steadfast in its mission, the success of the private group, which is investing its own money in the effort, will depend on its ability to first gain other stakeholders’ trust, and then convince them that it’s in their best interest to support it.

The group’s leaders are in the initial stages of outreach to North County residents. If established, as a public agency, the district would be able to issue bonds to finance infrastructure and apply for loans, grants and other state and federal assistance, according to PRAAGS.

Critics of the proposal, however, are pushing for a solution that they say would be fair and equitable.

"It would be like putting the fox in charge of guarding the hen house," said Dianne Jackson, a Paso Robles rural resident and director of PRO Water Equity, a group of rural landowners and agriculturalists seeking an equitable allocation of groundwater.

A board of directors from within the district’s boundaries — encompassing roughly 200,000 to 230,000 acres — would govern the California Water District and be responsible for representing all basin users. For the election of directors, each landowner would be entitled to a number of votes proportional to the assessment he or she pays the district.

“The PRAAGS plan for a water district is inherently unfair,” said PRO Water Equity member Elaine Hagen. “I believe in a representative government, one where wealth, power and land are not the determining factor in decision making. In a PRAAGS plan, the wealthiest landowners would decide how we use our water. If they use up all the groundwater, and need to import water, we’d have to pay for it.”

Dave King and his wife, Carol DeHart, dry-land farmers and vintners whose property lies in the basin, are in favor of some type of governance structure but said there has to be a level playing field between rural residents and growers.

“To base it on acreage, that’s not going to work because the big guy is always going to win,” King said.

DeHart added: “And homeowners can’t just be left to organize their own district. That’s just not right.”

PRO Water Equity has not yet put forward a specific proposal, but it believes that a management structure is needed over the basin. The group is studying examples of governance structures researched by county staff, which include a California Water District, county water district (which would be governed by a legislative body), water replenishment district, as well as several agencies around the state formed through special legislation.

“There are many types of water districts and many ways to achieve the desired end,” said Jan Seals, another PRO Water Equity member. “Most importantly, a water district needs to fairly represent all of the landholders who overlie the basin. This could mean one vote per resident or one vote per parcel.”

Reaugh understands the sentiment behind one man, one vote. A California Water District, however, cannot be created on such a basis because of Proposition 218, which requires that landowners approve of any assessment by a public agency, with each of the landowners’ votes proportional to the assessment.

“It’s clear the state has said either kind of organization is acceptable,” Reaugh said. “I see the arguments on both sides. But from a practical point of view, if things are going to get paid for … in proportion to who pays for it on land ownership, voting should be in sync with that. The worst thing would be to form a county structure and not get it funded.”

David Church, executive director of SLO County LAFCO, who has been working with the PRAAGS group as it puts together its petition, said there are a variety of groundwater management agencies, each with its own authority. In the case of a California Water District, landowners in the district elect the board members. With a county water district, all registered voters within the district’s boundaries would elect a board of directors. Other special act districts are formed through legislation and can be customized based upon a given situation.

Whether the California Water District is the right approach is yet to be determined, Church said. This kind of district has not been formed in 20 years in California, and the process could take some time.

“If the intention of the large property owners in rural areas is to form a district, that’s not a bad thing,” he said. “It may be the appropriate government structure for this situation. It’s something we don’t know.”

The alliance has about six months to gather signatures once the clock starts on the petition, Church said. When the necessary signatures are obtained, the petition returns to LAFCO, where it’s sent to the assessor’s office for signature, ownership and acreage validation. Then, after an analysis, it would go to the commission for approval, modification or denial.

“It’s something to be done in a carefully considered way,” Church said. “Whenever you form a government structure, you want to be careful about that. You don’t just dissolve them. They stay in place for a very long time.”

What’s ahead

As the PRAAGS group does its work, the Blue-Ribbon Steering Committee responsible for developing solutions to the basin continues to consider the ideas of all stakeholders, said chairman Larry Werner.

“We’ll be looking at it as a committee from a broader perspective than the individual groups,” he said.

“Our goal is to be analytical and unbiased, and guide the county in coming up with a solution that represents all the water users,” he said.

The committee is in the process of reviewing what other communities have done and has urged the county to gather a team of dedicated experts to determine which structure would be best suited to govern the basin.

Werner said he’s encouraged by how much progress has been made since the committee’s initial meetings.

“The idea that there would ever be any kind of government structure was so far out of anyone’s reality,” he said. “It’s amazing to me that the committee has come this far in recognizing the need to do something that has authority and the teeth to be able to accomplish the implementation of our solutions.”

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