Groups reach agreement on managing Paso Robles groundwater basin

jlynem@thetribunenews.com; dsneed@thetribunenews.comDecember 5, 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

Two North County groups working toward a solution to stabilize the Paso Robles groundwater basin have reached a compromise on managing the aquifer.

PRO Water Equity and Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, also known as PRAAGS, have proposed forming a special district, which would be created by the California Legislature and tailored to fit the needs of the Paso Robles area.

The district would be locally governed through AB 3030, a section of the California water code that allows local agencies to develop groundwater management plans. In addition to managing the local groundwater supply, the district would be able to obtain supplemental water.

The need for a water management district was prompted by a crisis in the sprawling Paso Robles groundwater basin in which water levels have dropped precipitously in recent years.

In August, county supervisors approved a 45-day emergency ordinance — later extended to two years — that prohibits new pumping from the basin unless it is offset by an equal amount of conservation. They did that to stabilize the basin until a permanent solution is developed.

Water levels have gone down by more than 80 feet in some areas. Many rural homeowners report their wells are going dry and they fear losing their homes if they have no water. The crisis has also pitted some rural residents against the North County’s economically important wineries, which use the bulk of the groundwater.

Reaction to news of the agreement was positive among county supervisors.

“To me, this is a really promising sign,” said Supervisor Adam Hill. “This shows a strong sign that there is a way forward if everybody works together and looks out for their neighbors.”

Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district includes a portion of the Paso Robles basin, said she was encouraged by the agreement.

“I know the groups have been working very hard for some months now,” she said. “I am glad they have found common ground and are moving forward.”

The two groups hope to submit special legislation in January, with the expectation that it could take several months to be approved. Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs the board, said he hopes the district could be created by next summer.

“I am hopeful that a cooperative process like this can solve the water problems in the basin,” he said.

Development of the special act district still requires working through the Local Agency Formation Commission approval process, and a parallel state process. Both avenues will give the public many opportunities to respond and give input.

“What we’re doing is a two-part thing; modifying the California Water District in terms of the board of directors and how they’re elected,” said Jerry Reaugh, president of PRAAGS, noting that the cleaner the bill, and the more support it has from both sides, the better.

Details of the compromise

From the beginning, both organizations understood that a water district must be established, but a key sticking point was who would oversee it, and how it would be governed to ensure that all landowners would be represented fairly.

PRAAGS, a group composed of some of the North County’s largest vineyard owners and managers, wanted a California Water District, in which at least five board members would be elected to four-year terms by a vote of landowners. Voting in this kind of a district is weighted according to the amount of acreage owned.

PRO Water Equity, consisting of rural landowners, smaller vineyard owners and farmers, had taken issue with that approach, saying it would unfairly tip the balance in favor of the largest landowners. Rather, it wanted a board where each person gets one vote.

After months of discussion brokered by Supervisor Frank Mecham, the organizations believe they have a hybrid proposal that meets the goals of both groups. Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, said the compromise showed “democracy in action.”

The proposed structure includes a board consisting of seven members, elected at large. Two directors would be elected by large landowners and two directors elected by small- or medium-sized landowners.

The remaining three directors would be elected by popular vote of residents who are registered voters living within the district.

“Landowner votes shall be cast by one of the owners on the deed, a current trustee if the land is owned by a trust, or a designated officer if the land is owned by a corporation or partnership,” the groups said.

District board members must be landowners within the district and must also live within the basin or within the surrounding area. The district area has yet to be defined.

“We are still trying to determine the appropriate acreage,” referring to the large and small/medium groups, Luft said. “We’re trying to make it fair so that everyone feels like they’re represented.”

“All voices have to be heard. It’s not an easy process to bring everyone together,” she added. “Everyone has to give a little.”

Impact on lawsuits

On Nov. 25, two lawsuits were filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court challenging the county emergency ordinance limiting pumping from the basin. Cindy Steinbeck, a Paso Robles vintner representing the plaintiffs in both suits, said the agreement will not affect the lawsuits.

She also said she does not consider the agreement a positive step forward but would not elaborate.

For their part, representatives of the two water groups said the lawsuits will not hinder the progress of forming a water management district.

“It’s just a distraction,” Luft said. “We were headed down this path anyway. This is where we needed to go.”

Reaugh agreed, saying the basin will need to be managed no matter what happens with the lawsuits.

“From our point of view, it shouldn’t affect what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Even if you go to the extreme of the lawsuits going forward, you’re still going to need a water district.”

“We’re in a critical situation, and next summer, in terms of well levels, it will be worse,” Luft said. “So, we have to get a mechanism in place so we can manage the basin.”

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