Compelling words are used to describe the “compromise proposal” for a Water District in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. Only the outline has thus far been made available to the public and there are big surprises concealed by soft descriptions and lack of detail offered by PRO Water Equity and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions.
The first big surprise is that the election to decide whether or not a district will be created is a simple majority yes/no vote that will be weighted based on acres owned by the voter. More than 50 percent of the acreage within the current boundaries is owned by fewer than 35 entities. Those 35 could decide whether or not a water district will be formed -- regardless of the votes of the more than 4,800 other owners of land within the proposed boundaries. That’s less than 1 percent of the landowners making the decision. No wonder PWE/PRAAGS isn’t highlighting that aspect of the proposal.
The second big problem is that for the six directors who are elected in acreage categories, the election is complicated, confusing and unfair. As an example, in the under-40-acres owned category, the votes of eight owners of 5 acres each can be cancelled out by one voter who owns 40 acres. That same operating principle applies to the other two categories based on acres owned. PWE/PRAAGS only talks about the categories, and not about the mechanics of how the directors will be elected.
The third issue is that the nine-member board will have six directors elected based on acres owned, and three directors elected based on one-voter-one-vote. The acreage-based directors will always have a majority.
PRAAGS members have repeatedly, publicly and clearly stated that they will only support a water district in which the large landowners have control. They have said it’s their money that would pay the biggest costs, and they don’t want rural residents having the power to veto big projects.
After 20 years of over-pumping and steadily declining water levels during good rain years and bad, it’s clear the basin needs some form of management to avoid further decline and degradation. But the current proposal would guarantee that the owners of big irrigated lands will have full control all the time and far into the future. You can be assured they will “manage” the basin in a way that satisfies them. They’ve said that if their wells are OK, then the rural residents’ wells will be OK. That’s hogwash. An irrigator’s deep well will still be OK when nearby residents’ shallower wells fail.
The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) executive director has advised that when you form a new government agency, you really need to get it right because it will be around for a long time. In spite of that, PWE/PRAAGS is urging immediate action by the supervisors because of a deadline in the state Legislature. Nothing that is rushed can be well considered, and it’s important to get it right.
Votes on projects such as importing water will always be based on acreage, and that seems fair because both the benefit and the cost will be greater for the bigger acreage. But the vote on whether or not to create the water district and the election of the district directors should be a one-man-one-vote for all the registered voters residing within the proposed boundaries. Otherwise, we will guarantee that the basin will be “managed” by the largest landowners, or those with the most expensive land holdings.
The PWE/PRAAGS proposal will go before the Board of Supervisors for consideration this month. Regardless of who wrote the original proposal, it will be the Board of Supervisors that will request Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian to introduce the proposed legislation to the state Legislature for approval. The supervisors can make changes in the proposal, and indeed it’s their responsibility to do so. Let’s insist they do it.
Della Barrett lives near Atascadero. She has been involved in North County water issues for years and served as the District 5 appointee to the county's Water Resources Advisory Committee for four years.