In a Viewpoint published in the June 1 Tribune, PRO Water Equity continued to obscure the real issue at the heart of the growing controversy around Assembly Bill 2453, regarding the election of a board of directors for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Water District.
PRO defends the bill as the only chance for management of the Paso Robles groundwater basin, framing the issue as a basin management versus no basin management. That has never been the issue. Indeed, sustainable management of the basin has garnered universal support.
No, the issue with AB 2453 surrounds the bill’s current language governing who can run for office, who will elect the directors of the district and who will have a say in the formation of the district. The list of organizations currently opposing the bill is extensive and diverse, including Sierra Club California, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Planning and Conservation League, California Teamsters Public Affairs Council, Defenders of Wildlife, Center for Biological Diversity, Clean Water Action, Food and Water Watch, Southern California Watershed Alliance, California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), California Coastal Protection Network and North County Watch. None of these organizations opposes management of the Paso Robles groundwater basin. All have been involved in the problems of how best to manage the rights to safe, clean, water sources for humans and wildlife. None of the groups opposes local management of groundwater basins and all support water management districts based on the election of directors and formation vote based on the principle of one person, one vote.
PRO claims that it stands for “local control” and that AB 2453 gives everyone a choice. But the bill mandates that six of the nine directors on any Paso groundwater basin would be elected based on one vote for every acre of land owned. However, 50 percent of the land in the proposed district is owned by absentee owners and an acreage-based voting system would allow concentrated, privatized management of dwindling groundwater resources, greatly undermining the ability of the local community to control the district and have its rights fairly represented. The only way to guarantee local control of the Paso groundwater basin is one person, one vote.
Not long ago, PRO advocated fiercely for one person, one vote. Now it wants to portray those who continue to advocate for this bedrock democratic principle as obstructionists rebelling against management – clearly a tactic to deflect public attention from the real issue by accusing environmental and other organizations who oppose the bill of standing in the way of groundwater management and promoting “environmental and economic disaster” in the basin.
The organizations and residents who seek to amend AB 2453 strongly support management of the basin. Amending the bill to provide for one person, one vote for formation of the district and elections of directors and removing the landowner requirement to serve as a director will not stand in the way of management of the basin.
What PRO and its partner, Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), leave unsaid is that they will not support sustainable management of the basin and will risk environmental and economic disaster unless they can control the basin with an acreage-based voting structure. PRO and PRAAGS don’t want AB 2453 amended because large landowners would not be able to control a groundwater district with one person, one vote elections.
PRO justifies acreage-based voting by saying those who will pay the most for projects should have the most say in the district. But all projects will require passage of Proposition 218 votes before any projects can go forward. Proposition 218 votes are acreage-based. When projects are proposed, those who will pay the most will have the most votes.
Handing over the election of directors and the formation vote to large absentee landowners is not fair, denies equal protection, and is anti-democratic. If AB 2453 is amended, will we have lost forever the chance to manage the basin, as PRO claims? No. The SLO County Flood Control and Water Conservation District has the duty and authority to continue to manage the basin, pursue projects, and apply for special state funding as proposed in a state water bond on the November ballot.
However, if AB 2453 passes as it currently stands it will disenfranchise thousands of non-landowning registered voters who will not have adequate representation in managing their drinking water -- an essential resource that rightfully belongs to the public. True local control only comes with a democratic process: one person, one vote.
Contact state Sen. Bill Monning and tell him to oppose AB 2453 unless amended to provide for one person, one vote for election of directors, formation vote, and let any resident in the district run for office.