Let the people decide.
That was the clear consensus of the county Local Agency Formation Commission on Thursday when it voted 6-1 to allow the landowners and residents of the Paso Robles groundwater basin to vote on whether they want to form a water management district for the basin.
Of the seven-member panel, Atascadero City Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi was the only no vote. Voting in favor were at-large member Tom Murray of Arroyo Grande, county supervisors Frank Mecham and Bruce Gibson, Pismo Beach City Councilman Ed Waage, Cambria Community Services District Director Muril Clift and Los Osos Community Services District Director Marshall Ochylski.
All voting yes said they wanted the people of the groundwater basin to decide their own future.
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“The issue before us now is to get this district before the people who will be affected by it and let them decide,” Gibson said.
Fonzi had several reasons for voting against the district. The main one was the fact that the petition to LAFCO to form the district was filed by the Board of Supervisors rather than by residents of the basin.
“I’m not sure this is the best way to go about forming the district,” she said.
Waage and Clift said they have reservations about the water district similar to Fonzi’s but voted in favor to ensure that voters make the choice.
Whether the district ultimately will be formed will be decided through an election early next year. The next steps in the process will occur over the next six months.
On Nov. 10, the county Board of Supervisors will vote to schedule the election, which will consist of three votes — whether to form the district, whether to approve an annual parcel tax totaling $1 million to fund the district and the election of a nine-member board of directors to manage the district, if formed.
Ballots containing those three questions will be mailed to 6,397 residents and property owners of the basin on Feb. 8. Those ballots will be due back March 8.
The commission held a three-hour hearing on the issue. Most of that time was spent taking public comment. Public sentiment was split about evenly between those who support and those who oppose the formation of a district.
The comments of those favoring a district mirrored the comments of the six commissioners who voted yes. They stressed the fact that state law now requires that dwindling groundwater basins be managed and that a locally created and controlled district is best.
“I want those with skin in the game to manage the district,” said Jan Seals of rural Paso Robles. “I urge you to give us the opportunity to vote.”
Opponents had three main reasons for not wanting a water district — probable cost overruns from legal fees and other costs once the district is formed, the desire to have the boundaries of the district changed to exclude those parts of the basin that do not have falling well levels and a desire to let property owners manage their own land.
“I’d really like to hear how a district will bring more water and fill those wells,” said Greg Grewal of Creston. “Drilling a new well is part of the cost of owning property.”
The state has identified the Paso Robles groundwater basin as having a high priority for management. Aquifers in many parts of the 790-square-mile basin have dropped about 70 feet since 1981, causing hundreds of wells to drop precipitously or go dry. Water levels are expected to drop another 70 feet by 2040.