About 70 people spoke — and more than 400 people packed the Paso Robles Event Center — on Thursday night to voice their opinion on whether a management district should be formed for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.
The speakers were about evenly split between those in favor of the district and those opposed, with opponents of the district frequently clapping loudly for speakers they agreed with.
The meeting was the first of at least two public hearings the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission will hold on whether the district should be formed, what its boundaries would be, what powers it would have and how it would be funded.
No decisions were made at the hearing. County and LAFCO staff had an hourlong presentation about the district formation process and then took public comment.
“The primary purpose of this meeting is to hear from the public,” Chairman Tom Murray said.
Those in favor of the district said state law requires management of the basin, and a water district would give residents around the basin control over its management. If locals do not manage the basin, either the county or the state will step in and do it for them.
“I am for local management and representation, and I really don’t want state intervention,” said Daniel Sinton of Creston.
Many proponents of the water district told of dropping well levels and degraded water quality.
“My well has dropped 75 feet,” said Ellen Ferguson of Paso Robles. “For people who think we don’t have a problem, you have your heads in the sand.”
Opponents alleged the district is just an excuse to collect more taxes and trample on property rights. They also expressed skepticism that the district would be able to solve the basin’s water crisis.
“I believe it is not going to make our wells come up,” said Joy Sprague of Paso Robles. “You can vote for the district if you want, but it is not going to help your wells.”
Other opponents said the district would only help the wealthy vintners in the basin who use most of the water, but not the small rural property owners.
“I don’t think any of my money should go to help people plant grapes, and that’s what this is,” said Bob Tucker of Paso Robles.
During the staff presentation, LAFCO Executive Officer David Church said the proposed district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin should contain a bylaw that prohibits the exportation of water outside the basin.
The bylaw was one of a set of powers LAFCO is considering to manage the district. Church also discussed the district’s service boundaries.
Church said the prohibition of transfer, export or movement of groundwater outside of the basin comes as a response to concerns raised by residents of the basin.
“The purpose of the proposed water district is to balance and stabilize the groundwater resources in the basin,” he said. “Exporting water resources to other areas would likely cause an imbalance and destabilization of the basin.”
Most of the proposed powers the district could have were outlined in a law, written by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, which went into effect Jan. 1 and that allowed the formation of the district. The powers included in the law were based on successful water districts elsewhere in the state and would give the district sweeping authority to meter, monitor and manage the groundwater basin in order to stabilize it by 2020.
The commission also presented a map showing the area the district could encompass. The LAFCO staff has recommended the smaller of two options to determine the district boundaries.
The option preferred by the staff contains boundaries identified in 2002 by San Luis Obispo engineering consulting firm Fugro Consultants Inc. It covers some 790 square miles of the North County east of Paso Robles and Atascadero. The other potential boundary option was developed by the state in the 1970s, is larger by 150,000 acres and includes a larger chunk of the county near the Kern County line.
The Fugro boundaries are preferred because they are based on newer information gathered from a significant number of wells within the basin, Church said.
“The Fugro boundary makes practical and scientific sense as the preferred service boundary for the formation of the district,” he said.
The commission is set to hold a second hearing on the formation of the district Sept. 17 in San Luis Obispo. Additional hearings will be held if needed.
Once LAFCO is done forming the district, the agency will pass the district proposal to the county Board of Supervisors, which will schedule an election for March 8, in which the voters and landowners in the basin will decide whether to form the district, whether to approve a proposed annual budget of $1 million and who would be on the nine-member board of directors.