Bill to create North County water district moves forward

dsneed@thetribunenews.comMay 7, 2014 

A bill in the California Legislature that would help form a Paso Robles groundwater management district passed an initial hurdle Wednesday when it was approved by the Assembly Local Government Committee.

It now goes before the entire state Assembly, which has until May 30 to vote. If successful there, the bill would move on to the state Senate.

The hearing Wednesday afternoon in Sacramento featured the participation of 20 San Luis Obispo County residents who were equally divided for and against the passage of the bill.

Those speaking in favor of the bill said it would allow residents of the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin to take charge of dealing with dropping aquifers and wells going dry, and they noted the state will likely step in if local residents do not deal with the crisis.

“We are facing an environmental disaster in the Paso Robles basin,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs the Board of Supervisors and supports the bill. “We want to have a chance to form a district that gives voice to all in the basin and does not concentrate control in any one group.”

Jerry Reaugh, owner of Sereno Vista Vineyards in Paso Robles, told the committee that he has had to lower the pump in his groundwater well three times in the past 15 years because of falling aquifer levels in the groundwater basin. He supports the bill.

“A great controversy has developed in our area,” he said. “We need a water district, and we need local control, and all parties must participate.”

AB 2453 by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, would allow the proposed water district to have a modified or hybrid board of directors that includes a combination of landowners and district residents.

The board would have nine members and be composed of three members elected directly by district residents, while the other six would be elected by landowners in the basin based on whether they are large-, medium- or small-acreage landowners.

The water district is a compromise between two North County groups: PRO Water Equity, which represents some of the basin’s rural homeowners, and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, which mostly represents vintners.

Opponents of the bill asked the committee that it be amended so that its formation is based on a popular vote of residents in the district rather than a vote by people who own land in the district, particularly those who own large amounts of land.

A formation by landownership would allow a relatively small number of large landowners to decide whether the district is formed or not. As few as 30 to 40 of the largest land owners in the basin that has 4,900 property owners could decide whether the district is formed.

“This is a profoundly undemocratic election process,” said Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district encompasses part of the Paso basin. “It is with great passion that I ask you to amend this bill.”

Cindy Steinbeck, owner of Steinbeck Vineyards of Paso Robles, said she opposes the bill because it will disenfranchise residents of the proposed district.

“There is a lot of opposition to this bill,” she said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions and unknowns. Down with AB 2453!”

The bill passed the committee unamended by a vote of 6-1 with two members not voting.

Achadjian, who chairs the Local Government Committee, praised his constituents who drove to the State Capitol to participate in the hearing. He said he is sponsoring the bill because it is a way to provide local control over the basin.

Without the hybrid board of directors that his bill would allow, a regular state water district could be formed that would be based entirely — both the formation of the district and its governance — on a vote based on landownership.

“If you take this bill and trash it, under existing law the district that will be formed will be based on one vote by one acre,” Achadjian told his colleagues on the committee, adding that the proposed district is controversial but will ultimately yield a positive outcome.

The bill generated little discussion by the other eight members of the committee but several said they have struggled with the idea of a hybrid board of directors. Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, said he voted for the bill because it was the product of a compromise among many of the residents of the North County.

“This is a process that got a majority of local support, and I like that,” he said. “Mr. Achadjian will continue to work with the residents of his district.”

In order for the water district to be formed, an application must be made to the county Local Agency Formation Commission, a body that approves the formation of special districts and sets their powers and boundaries. Once a petition to form the water district is received, LAFCO will begin the lengthy process of reviewing it, which will include multiple opportunities for public input, said David Church, the commission’s executive director.

Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, said they are waiting until they are confident the bill will be signed into law before they submit an application to begin the process of forming the district.

No decision has been made about when they will make the submission, but it is likely to be after the Assembly votes on the bill at the end of the month.

“We are waiting until we get a sense that the legislation is going well before submitting our petition to LAFCO,” Luft said.

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