North County group proposes special district for groundwater basin

PRO Water Equity, a group of rural residents and agriculturalists, wants special-act district

jlynem@thetribunenews.comSeptember 19, 2013 

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

As the county reviews options for how best to manage and protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin, one North County group believes it has found a solution to maintain the long-term viability of the dwindling aquifer.

The basin’s water levels have been in decline and, according to the most recent map released by the county, have dropped dramatically in the past four years — posing a profound threat not only to North County residents who could lose their homes because their wells are going dry but also to vineyards, which could lose access to a crucial resource.

The information has led various stakeholders to push for immediate action as well as long-term solutions to stabilize the basin.

PRO Water Equity, a group of rural residents and agriculturalists, says it would support a special-act district, one that would be created by the California Legislature and tailored to meet the specific needs of the area. The district would be governed by an independent board that’s either elected, appointed or both, said Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity.

The group had previously considered forming a governance structure under the umbrella of the county’s Flood Control District, a quasi-dependent district in which routine activities would be conducted by a board, but ultimate authority would rest with the county Board of Supervisors.

After discussions Wednesday with the solutions subcommittee, a group within the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Steering Committee, PRO Water Equity decided that a special district would make more sense. The organization was expected to present its proposal Thursday at a steering committee meeting.

“It evolved on what would potentially be acceptable to everybody,” Luft said. “We continue to feel strongly that a California Water District is not the approach.”

With the special-act district, elements of a California Water District or county water district could still be incorporated, she said. The crux of the problem, however, is figuring out how the board would fairly represent all basin users.

Under a California Water District, which has been proposed by the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, a separate group of farmers and vineyard owners, a board of directors within the district’s boundaries would be in charge of governing.

The circulation of the petition is a first step in getting approval from LAFCO to have an election to form the district.

PRO Water Equity is disappointed that PRAAGS “felt the need to push forward with it,” Luft said, adding that “it is what it is.”

“We need to come up with a board of directors that landowners and residents agree with,” she said. “That discussion is continuing; we’re not there yet.”

The special-act district that Luft’s group has proposed would first need a legislative platform, developed by stakeholders and adopted by the county Board of Supervisors. When the platform is complete, a member of the Board of Supervisors would send it to Sacramento to get it through the Legislature, Luft said.

In addition, PRO Water Equity is interested in developing a more robust groundwater management plan for the county to “give it more teeth,” she said. Specific language could be included in the special legislation to beef up the county’s plan, she said, such as requiring that pumping be managed by the district if supplemental water is not feasible.

Meanwhile, Paavo Ogren, county public works director, remains focused on staff’s work for the Board of Supervisors, which has asked for some tentative goals and objectives for what a management agency overseeing the basin would accomplish.

“People are advancing their ideas,” Ogren said. “Hopefully, it results in everybody gaining an understanding of what everyone’s points of views are.”

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