Control of water basin should stay local

February 16, 2014 

We urge the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to approve the Legislative Platform Policy Statement on Tuesday that supports special legislation to advance the process of creating an independent water district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The proposed district has received widespread support. Don’t let small, belligerent groups, namely Protect Our Water Rights, PR-WIN and spokeswoman Cindy Steinbeck, dictate that as overliers, they can extract unlimited water from the basin — without regard for neighbors or the basin’s health.

This argument is selfish and harmful — for them and everyone else. Their pursuit of their “Quiet Title” lawsuit against the county claims that significant water resources exist, despite the fact that the area Steinbeck lives in has been hit particularly hard.

Initial studies confirm that portions of the basin have been in decline for years. The decline has caused hardships for many and is exacerbated by a devastating drought. The foot-dragging, conspiracy theories and head-in-the-sand approaches by these groups will only worsen the existing problem.

On the other side, you have the majority, both members and nonmembers of Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) and PRO Water Equity, trying to work productively toward a solution. These residents and landowners believe the proposed water district provides a balanced approach to managing the basin. The Water Resources Advisory Committee, the county’s Blue Ribbon Committee and The Tribune have also examined the plan and endorsed it as fair.

Water district formation and voting structure

There is still ample time for all stakeholders to get involved. First, a majority of landowners must sign the petition to get it in front of the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) board. Then, the LAFCO process involves many public hearings and opportunities for input. Finally, if after reviewing the proposed petition for a water district LAFCO allows it to go before voters, there will be a public election. There are three components of this election, and district formation is contingent upon both the first and second components passing.

1. Vote to approve or disapprove of forming a district. California water law says votes for forming a water district are based on acreage owned.

2. Vote to approve or reject the initial assessment to fund the district. This is based on Proposition 218, which is California law. It’s written into the state Constitution and is designed to be financially fair for everyone. Basically, irrigated land pays more so the average landowner or resident can afford the district, so votes based on land is fair. By law, we can’t have one person, one vote. Supreme Court decisions, such as Ball v. James, support this format.

3. Vote to elect the district’s board of directors. The plan provides for a nine-member board of directors elected from throughout the district, providing checks, balances and comprehensive representation. Directors are elected within two categories: one representing registered voters (residents) with one vote per voter and one representing landowners with votes based on acreage owned. All directors will be volunteers and have the same powers once seated.

Our basin is in crisis and we need action

Someone commented at the Feb. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting that the language keeps changing. That’s because we continue holding meetings, listening to suggestions and altering the district to make it fair. Since the Blue Ribbon Committee recommended developing a governance structure May 7 — nine months ago — more than a dozen public meetings, research, deliberation, compromise, input from the community and government officials and revisions have led us to the proposed hybrid district. After all of the concessions, we’re starting to think that some people just enjoy arguing.

With that said, we cannot delay any longer for two overarching reasons:

1. The basin’s continued decline. During the Feb. 11 meeting, Karen Lange of Peterson Consulting Inc., pointed to the Feb. 21 deadline for introducing a bill for a water district. If we act now, we might have a district in a year. That’s important because setting up the district and stabilizing the basin will take time. Any delays will compound the problem, and we cannot afford greater water decline.

2. The state’s impending ultimatum. Lange said of Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for 2014-15, “He’s put local governments on notice that if they don’t or can’t manage their groundwater problems themselves, the State Water Resources Control Board is going to step in and do it for you.”

According to Lange, the state will enact that budget in June — just four months away.

Moreover, a few are undermining our chance to meet these deadlines by involving the courts. If the courts get involved, we’ll all waste a lot of time and money, still end up with some sort of water management body, and have even less — or no — say in how it’s formed.

We in the North County have made excellent progress in finding a balanced approach to managing and protecting the basin locally. Let’s work together and keep moving forward for local control!

Jerry Reaugh is chairman of PRAAGS. Sue Luft is president of PRO Water Equity Inc.

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