As San Luis Obispo County supervisors and others review ways to manage the threatened Paso Robles groundwater basin, experts recommend crafting a special act district created by the Legislature and customized to fit the needs of a specific area.
Only 13 such local agencies have been established in California.
But while few exist, these special act districts play a key role in helping to protect and stabilize water supplies throughout California, say water district managers and other groundwater management experts.
“You can draft the bill where the powers are clear and tailored to a local area, and that creates more certainty,” said Rebecca Nelson, a researcher with Stanford’s Water in the West program who has done extensive study on groundwater policy in California.
If there’s proof of basin overdraft or the threat of overdraft, for example, such agencies formed after 1980 can limit the export or extraction of groundwater. They can also require users to report extractions as well as levy fees for groundwater management and replenishment of the water supply, according to the California Department of Water Resources.
Another form of governance — California Water Districts — provide specific services including producing, storing and distributing water for irrigation, domestic, industrial or municipal uses.
About 130 of these special districts exist in the state. But they don’t have any powers to manage demand, although they may be subject to agricultural regulations that require metering of wells and water conservation.
“Off-the-shelf water districts don’t include any special powers to charge fees for pumping or to restrict pumping, so to the extent that folks want those options to be part of the suite of management options available, a California Water District, for example, won’t help,” Nelson said.
Board’s structure is key, too
How an agency’s board is structured also has the ability to shape how a basin is managed, Nelson said.
A major hurdle to Paso Robles groundwater basin stakeholders is that there’s disagreement over the potential makeup of a district’s governing board.
The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, or PRAAGS, wants a California Water District in which at least five board members would be elected to four-year terms by the vote of landowners.
This group is comprised of owners and managers of some of the North County's largest vineyard properties, as well as farmers. Its option would provide weighted voting depending on the amount of acreage owned.
Another group, PRO Water Equity, has taken issue with that proposal, saying that it would put the decision-making authority in the hands of the largest landowners.
They advocate for a board that is more representative of all basin users — where each person gets one vote. This North County group consists of rural landowners, smaller vineyard owners and farmers.
By making wise decisions about who the leaders are, “you might be able to head off some of the politics of decision-making in the future,” Nelson said.
How some special act districts work
Faced with a changing landscape and dropping water levels, Orange County made a decision 80 years ago to create special legislation. After passage in the Legislature, then Gov. James Rolph Jr. signed the Orange County Water District into law in 1933, protecting the water supply for all of its users, mostly agricultural at the time.
The agency — one of the few non-adjudicated basins in California — has evolved through the years, but it continues to be lauded for having one of the more robust programs in the state.
Its 10-member board, with seven directly elected members and three appointed, oversees a district that allows the metering of groundwater wells so that officials know how much water is being pumped out of the basin. They also are responsible for setting the annual replenishment assessment of $276 per acre-foot, with those who exceed individual use limits charged a pump tax.
Moreover, the district has built a large recycled water plant, which is a source of supply for the district’s groundwater basin.
District manager Mike Markus understands why water is such a thorny issue for many communities, but he said it doesn’t have to be that way.
“Where there are problems statewide is when you get into this concept of it’s my water and I don’t want you taking it away from me and giving it to someone else,” he said. “If you form a special district, it’s all for one and one for all. You’re all committed to the common good.”
Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, which serves Ventura County, formed its special act district in the 1982-83 Legislature. The five-member appointed board has representatives from the United Water Conservation District, which maintains the water resources of the Santa Clara River; the county Board of Supervisors; the Farm Bureau; the city; as well as from the small mutual water districts, said Gerhardt Hubner, deputy director of public works for the Ventura County Watershed Protection District and Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency.
Although the agency has some competing interests for water — mainly agriculture versus municipal users — it has been successful in stabilizing its basin, Hubner said.
Among other things, the agency collects a pump charge and requires everyone to file extraction reports twice a year to monitor how much is being pumped out of the ground. The amounts are measured with flow meters, he said.
“You can’t manage what you can’t measure,” Hubner said.
While progress has come in “fits and starts,” Hubner said, “the agency has created a forum for people to come and talk and discuss their issues so they can work out regional solutions.”
Extreme drought conditions in the Ojai Valley prompted that community to create special legislation to stabilize its groundwater basin in 1991, said Cece VanDerMeer, executive secretary/treasurer of the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency.
A five-member board representing a variety of the valley’s water users leads the agency, she said. The agency’s leadership has overseen the development of a basin-wide groundwater model, with the help of a hired hydrogeologist.
In 2009, the board adopted a requirement that all wells in the basin must be equipped with meters. The agency is allowed to levy an extraction charge as well as to pay the costs of carrying out its responsibilities. And it’s currently working with the county to install an injection well so that during wet years enough water can be pumped into the basin.
In the beginning, VanDerMeer said, some opposed the legislation.
“There were people who did not want it to happen. They said this is my water, it’s under my ground, it’s under my property,” she said. “But everyone came together because they realized this is what we needed to manage the water and make sure there was plenty of water, especially in drought.”
Some districts moved to one-person, one-vote
Some water districts have embraced a different structure in an effort to achieve what they believe is fairer representation.
Decades ago, large landowners formed the Walnut Valley Water District near Los Angeles. After it was created in 1952, the district moved from being a so-called off-the-shelf district to one tweaked by the Legislature.
“The organization started as a California Water District based off how much land you owned, so people who had a lot of land could dominate the vote,” said Michael Holmes, general manager of the water district. “That changed in the late 1960s or early 1970s to one-person, one-vote to be more fair.”
Today, five distinct divisions in the district, each representing a different area, elect the district’s five-member board. As well, each user has a meter on his property and is billed for every unit (748 gallons) — with a tiered system offering conservation incentives.
“With tiered pricing, it says the more you use the more it costs you,” Holmes said.
Low-flow units on toilets, sprinklers and showers are among the voluntary measures. In the last five years or so, users have saved 19 percent of their water use through these actions.
It is possible to have elements of a California Water District and special act district, said David Church, executive director of the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission.
As a condition of approval, LAFCO could decide that a California Water District not be formed until special legislation passes, he said. The special legislation could amend the water code and change the makeup of the board of directors for the California Water District.
“It has changed the makeup of the board in the past, and it can happen,” he said. “Most of it is where it changed from landowners to registered voters.”
But it remains to be seen whether such a move will happen in Paso Robles.
“I know both sides have been interested in talking about a solution, and maybe using special legislation as a vehicle,” Church said. “Both sides are definitely saying let’s talk and see if we can work things out.”