Supervisors split on vote to support Paso Robles water district

dsneed@thetribunenews.comFebruary 18, 2014 

In a split decision, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to support legislation to create a water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Supervisors Frank Mecham, whose district encompasses the bulk of the basin, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voted in favor of the legislation. Supervisors Debbie Arnold, whose district covers the remainder of the basin, and Caren Ray voted no.

It is now up to state Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, to introduce the legislation to be considered in this year’s legislative session. Achadjian has said he is willing to draft a bill if it has county support.

“It is clear that there are a lot of moving parts right now with the current proposal to create a new water district,” he said in a statement released earlier in the week. “I have made it clear that I will not move ahead with any legislation until there is consensus from the locally elected Board of Supervisors and the language has been fully vetted by them.”

Achadjian could not be reached Tuesday to determine if a 3-2 vote would be enough for him to carry legislation.

The legislation is needed in order to create a water district with a board of directors that is not elected solely based on the amount of acreage owned within the basin. Two North County water groups have proposed a hybrid district that would be governed by a nine-person board who would be elected based on a combination of direct voting and three categories of landowners with small, medium and large acreages.

The three supervisors who voted in favor of the legislation did so in spite of vocal opposition by some residents of the proposed district who said it would be a new, unneeded layer of bureaucracy with the power to tax and regulate. They also fear that a handful of large landowners could take control of the district’s board in spite of efforts to craft the panel to avoid such an outcome.

“It’s built into the process that the large landowners would prevail over the small landowners,” said Don Wilson of Creston.

The three voting in favor said they needed to take action because the basin is in crisis with dwindling aquifers and wells going dry. Supporting legislation to form the district would start the process, which would have plenty of oversight and public participation along the way to address any problems that arise.

Mecham repeated his fear that the state will take over managing the basin if the county does not take the lead, and local control will be lost. “What is the alternative — to do nothing?” he asked.

Hill, who represents San Luis Obispo and parts of the Five Cities area, said the proposed district is not perfect but is a compromise that offers “representational fairness.”

“I don’t know of anyone in the South County who thinks that destroying the Paso basin is a good thing,” he said. “I think we are moving forward in a reasonable way.”

Arnold said she voted against supporting the legislation because enough of her constituents oppose it. The basin could be managed using the existing county flood control district, she said.

“I can’t agree that this is good legislation,” she said.

Ray said she supported the essential structure of the district but wanted several provisions included in the county’s position that the other supervisors did not support. Specifically, she wanted language written into the legislation expressly prohibiting water banking and exporting water from the county, as well as language that would use a one-vote-per-parcel-owner system to establish the district rather than a vote based on acreage.

The other supervisors said the water banking prohibition would be best addressed by the Local Agency Formation Commission, the county body that will oversee the formation of the district. They also said changing the rules governing the formation of the district would unnecessarily complicate the legislation and reduce its chances of success.

Mecham and Ray said they will urge their colleagues at a later date to send to the legislature a nonbinding statement opposing water banking.

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