At the county Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 6 meeting, while discussing the crisis in the Paso Robles water basin, I quoted the legendary New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Campaigning for the office in 1933, LaGuardia boasted that his first and best qualification was his “monumental ingratitude.” Always, LaGuardia promised, he would do what was best for the city, even if it made his friends, supporters and voters unhappy.
I have always thought of that as the hard cost of true independent leadership. Losing friends and supporters is inevitable when you have to make tough decisions that apply the wider community good and are framed by the future rather than just the present. Appeasing those who support you can be good politics but too often lousy policy.
Why is this relevant to our deliberations on whether to pass an interim urgency ordinance that could, in effect, create a moratorium throughout the Paso groundwater basin? Because people are deeply divided on this issue, with hundreds of frightened homeowners with dry wells imploring us to pass such an ordinance, while such action is strongly opposed by most involved in the wine industry, the related ag industry and those who oppose land use controls for ideological reasons.
I believe I can generalize in stating that most people in and out of our county are extremely grateful for the incredible success of the North County wine industry. It has greatly fortified our local economy with jobs and revenue, it has been generous in its philanthropic actions, and it has helped protect and enhance the dazzling scenic areas that have become part of the highly publicized awareness of our beautiful county to visitors everywhere. It would be hard to overstate the value of the wine industry to our county. It is a great source of civic pride for all of us.
But at the same time, the consequences of this growth with its related professions have intensified the serious decline of our most critical resource: water. We now have a crisis before us that I believe is the most important and difficult one we will face. No one denies that hundreds of rural residents are suffering both economically and psychologically. This is deeply troubling to me, and I know it is deeply troubling to my three colleagues on the board.
Without water flowing into their homes, these residents face grave economic consequences and great health and safety risks, ranging from fire to sanitation. There are no easy short-term measures to alleviate this, but we must cease the over-pumping of the basin as we move toward long-term measures. These longer-term actions to manage this common resource will require trust, mutuality and enlightened self-interest that simply does not exist right now.
To pass an interim urgency ordinance, all four of us on the board will have to agree to actions that will certainly upset many who also have legitimate fears of the unintended economic consequences. But I believe it comes down to this: While an interim urgency ordinance might create a short-term dent in the prosperity of some, we have to act immediately to ensure the long-term health of the basin and provide some relief to rural residents who live every day with terrible anxiety and rightfully expect their government to help them.
Doing so will require courage. Is it tougher for my North County colleagues? It is. We can’t pretend politics and its mazy arrangements are not part of the equation, as they often are for all of us who serve in elected office. My North County colleagues have many friends and supporters who would view the enactment of an appropriately scaled interim ordinance as wrong-headed and an act of ingratitude. And they, too, have legitimate fears and unanswerable questions about acting with urgency.
But if any issue affords us an opportunity to unite, to work together for the greater good, to make hard decisions in a context of uncertainty, this is it. Not only is courage required (and believe me, disappointing people is no fun), but so is having the resolve and wisdom to overcome our own philosophical principles and political alliances in order to try to lead us down the best path amid the worst conditions. I remain optimistic. On Aug. 27, we will see.
Adam Hill represents the 3rd District on the county Board of Supervisors.