Local landowners agree that groundwater must be managed — but how?

jlynem@thetribunenews.comOctober 19, 2013 

After weeks of productive and often passionate debate, stakeholders tasked with finding the best way to manage the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have not reached consensus on what type of water district to form or who will oversee it.

But they remain hopeful.

“If we’re going to make progress, everyone is going to have to make a compromise, including us,” said Jerry Reaugh, chairman of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), a group comprised of owners and managers of some of North County’s largest vineyards, as well as some farmers.

Representatives from PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity, a North County group consisting of rural residents, farmers and some small vineyard owners, have met numerous times in separate sessions with county Supervisor Frank Mecham.

Mecham has facilitated discussions about which type of governance would be most suitable for managing the groundwater basin. He said he has met with the groups together at least twice and is scheduling another meeting after Nov. 1.

“I’ve been pleased with their progress,” Mecham said. “It has come a long way.”

In the weeks ahead, however, a third-party facilitator will be brought in, said Mecham, noting, “I don’t have a dog in this hunt.” The facilitator would either come from Cal Poly, the Public Works Department or another entity mutually agreed upon by PRO Water Equity and PRAAGS.

“I don’t want this to be a situation where down the line I was perceived as being on one side or another,” Mecham said. “The facilitator would have no interest at all in government.”

The major sticking point is whether the district should be an independent, landowner-supported California Water District, which PRAAGS has proposed, or one that would provide for one person, one vote, favored by the PRO Water Equity group.

The PRAAGS group is circulating a petition to gather signatures from the holders of title to the majority of land in the proposed district, which encompasses about 260,000 acres. It has six months to gather the signatures and present the petition to the Local Agency Formation Commission, which has the power to approve, modify or deny its proposal. Such a district has not been formed in California in more than 20 years.

Meanwhile, Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, said her group, which is opposed to giving landowners who pay the most taxes the most say, is looking at several options to meet everyone’s needs, including special act legislation that could pull powers from a California Water District or County Water District.

“We have a couple of points where we don’t agree that we’re working on, and we’re hopeful we can have a consensus and take it out to the greater public,” Luft said.

At the same time, there has been broad agreement among stakeholders that the county needs to beef up its groundwater management plan.

The Legislature passed AB3030 in 1992 to give local public agencies that provide water service increased authority to manage groundwater resources. Since the bill passed more than 200 agencies have adopted them, although some have “suffered from little or no implementation,” according to the Association of California Water Agencies.

San Luis Obispo County adopted its plan last year.

Local agencies that adopt them have the ability to impose annual fees and assessments for groundwater management based on the amount of groundwater pumped from a basin within a given area.

It can also suspend groundwater extractions if it’s proven that groundwater replenishment programs or other water supply sources have not been sufficient.

The county’s plan is consistent with what the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Blue-Ribbon Committee has been working on, including conservation, finding supplemental sources of water, recycled water and overall management of the basin, said Courtney Howard, water resource engineer with the county.

“The current groundwater management plan lists all the things that can be done, but not which one of those things we should do and when,” Howard said. “We’re taking the plan to the next level, and prioritizing which things we should do first.”

The idea is to engage in a cooperative effort with stakeholders, who can then use this as a blueprint for a water district, she said.

Larry Werner, chairman of the committee, said encouraging the parties to work together would create a robust AB3030 plan that is “more sophisticated and more focused.”

“If we can now take that and build on that foundation to really implement projects that work based upon solutions that we’ve provided, that’s the next step,” Werner said.

No one knows what the end result will be, but he said whatever happens, the committee will keep communication open until a solution is reached.

“That’s what we’ve been about the whole time,” he said.

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