Plan for Paso Robles water district faces legal roadblock in Sacramento

Officials say there may be constitutional and legal problems with proposed format of board

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMarch 7, 2014 

Plans to create a water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin have hit a serious, possibly fatal, roadblock.

Top county officials met Wednesday in Sacramento with Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and state Sen. Bill Monning, the county’s two state legislators, and were told that the state Office of Legislative Counsel has raised concerns about the legality of the district’s proposed hybrid board of directors, said county Supervisor Frank Mecham, who was at the meeting and whose district includes the bulk of the basin.

“The only thing I came away with is that there are some pretty strong obstacles in front of it,” he said. “It appears that this is not going to fly based on the hybrid board that was proposed.”

Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, confirmed that there are constitutional and legal problems with the bill and he is still deciding how to move forward.

“I am reviewing these concerns with my staff and will work with all interested parties to facilitate a local solution to address the needs of the Paso Robles water basin,” he said in a statement. “I will continue to research the facts and will report back to the Board (of Supervisors).”

Equal protection

The problem is the hybrid board of directors that has been proposed, which would have nine directors consisting of three members elected by voters and six members representing landowners with acreages of various sizes.

Specifically, the bill may conflict with the state constitution’s equal protection clause, said David Church, executive officer of the county Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) who was also at Wednesday’s meeting.

Such clauses ensure that laws and governments treat all persons alike unless there is some substantial reason why certain persons or classes of persons should be treated differently.

“The trend in Sacramento is to move away from boards based on land ownership and toward voter-established boards,” Church said.

State law does provide for “off-the-shelf” water districts based strictly on a one-acre, one-vote system that gives large landowners an advantage.

The Legislative Counsel is still analyzing the Paso Robles proposal and is expected to issue a final opinion in one to two months.

Mecham said if Achadjian’s bill cannot move forward, he will recommend that LAFCO hold several workshops outlining the various types of water districts that are available. This process may reveal a better option for forming a district, he said.

In February, Achadjian introduced legislation that would modify state water law to allow the formation of a district different from the “off-the-shelf” structure.

The bill was based on a water district structure proposed by two North County water groups interested in forming a district to manage dwindling groundwater levels in the Paso Robles basin.

In recent years, water levels have dropped 2 to 6 feet per year, depending on location, causing wells to go dry for some homeowners and irrigators.

The two groups represent mostly irrigated agriculture and rural residents, respectively. They said the hybrid board was the best option because it would give representation both to residents of the basin and vintners and other irrigation farmers.

In a split vote, the county Board of Supervisors sent a resolution to Achadjian supporting his legislation. Supervisors Caren Ray and Debbie Arnold voted against supporting the bill, while Supervisors Frank Mecham, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson voted in favor.

On Friday, Achadjian said the two groups proposed a compromise to provide balanced representation among large and small landowners, but the voting structure of the board would face stiff constitutional challenges.

“The chances are that it would fail,” he said.

Landowners still “can have a water district by going through the LAFCO process,” he said. “But the way the law is, the voting public will have one vote per acre. That means those who own a larger piece of property will have more say about (the district).”

Mecham was the only supervisor at Wednesday’s meeting. The other four said Friday that they have heard about the Legislative Counsel’s concerns but are not familiar with the details.

“My concern is because the water users in the basin are so varied that an off-
the-shelf district will not adequately address the diversity of the basin users,” Ray said.

Arnold said she will be interested to see whether backers of the district will decide to move ahead.

Gibson and Hill say they are waiting for more information about the legislation but still support the idea of forming a water district.

“My take is we need to let the process go forward, get some comments back from those in Sacramento who are analyzing this and figure out what to do next once we hear from them,” Gibson said.

Hill said he is disappointed to learn the plan may be in trouble.

“We’ve been trying to retain as much local control as possible,” he said. “It was us trying to honor the hard work of the two stakeholder groups who came up with a compromise for a way to form a water district.

“I understand it’s a very complicated issue, and hopefully we’ll have more clarity soon.”

Monning, D-Carmel, declined to comment on the issue. The Office of Legislative Counsel also declined to comment, saying its communications with legislators are protected by attorney-client confidentiality rules.

Wide disappointment

Backers of the proposed water district also say they are disappointed and are waiting to see what happens next, said Dana Merrill, a North County vintner and member of one of the stakeholder groups, the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, which consists mostly of farmers of irrigated agriculture who co-proposed the legislation.

“This may be a significant hurdle or a brick wall,” he said. “But it seems a little premature to declare it dead on arrival. There may be other alternatives to forming the board.”

Sue Luft, who heads the other stakeholder group — called PRO Water Equity, consisting mostly of rural residents — that is backing the bill, said she is surprised that a problem has come up with its legality. The bill had already been vetted by many water law attorneys, she said.

“We spent a long time working through all the options,” she said. “We wouldn’t have gone down this path if we didn’t think this was constitutional.”

Those in attendance at Wednesday’s meeting were Church, Monning, Achadjian, Mecham, county Administrative Officer Dan Buckshi, county Public Works Director Paavo Ogren and various legislative staff members.

“I think the idea of the meeting was to give everybody a heads up that this may not work,” Church said.

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