Plan for North County water district explained at meeting

Jerry Reaugh is chairman of Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions.
Jerry Reaugh is chairman of Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Some 100 people attended a meeting Tuesday to learn about ambitious plans to establish within a year a water district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Leaders of two groups pushing for the water district outlined the steps that must be taken to form and fund a water district, at a meeting at Pear Valley Winery east of Paso Robles.

“It’s conceivable that this time next year we could have a water district in place,” said Jerry Reaugh, chairman of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, or PRAAGS.

The groups are pursuing a two-pronged approach to forming the district. One prong is to get special state legislation passed that would allow a new water district to be formed — something that has not been done in California in 25 years.

Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian has agreed to sponsor the legislation if there is broad public support for it, including the support of the county Board of Supervisors, Reaugh said. The legislation could be passed and signed by the governor in as soon as six months.

The other prong is to get landowners in the basin to agree to form a district, fund it and elect a board of directors for it. Forming a district is expected to cost about $1 million, which would be paid for by landowners within the district.

The district would be roughly coterminous with the groundwater basin covering a 790-square mile swath of the North County.

“The district will be the basin, basically,” said Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, the other group pushing for a water district.

David Church, executive director of the Local Agency Formation Commission, said the goal of forming the district in a year is ambitious but possible.

“It depends on how much people are willing to work together,” he said. “If they are, you have a chance of getting it done in a year.”

Several members of the public expressed concern at the meeting that everyone in the basin be equally represented in the district. Some of the votes and petition drives to form the district are based on the amount of land owned, potentially giving vintners disproportionate influence, they said.

Reaugh and Luft said the district’s board of directors would be set up to avoid this. Three of the nine directors would be elected directly by residents of the district while six others would be elected by property owners in the district according to the amount of land they own. If anything, the board would be weighted toward the rural homeowners, Luft said.

Others expressed skepticism that the district would be effective in dealing with the water crisis in the North County, given the extreme drought affecting the state.

Steve Sinton, a PRAAGS board member, said a district is needed in order bring additional water into the district. For example, the district could buy unallocated water from the Nacimiento pipeline project and the State Water Project. The district could also limit usage by overseeing water conservation efforts and regulating pumping.

Reaugh warned that if residents of the groundwater basin do not deal with the problem of dwindling aquifer levels, the state, county or courts will do it for them. Water levels have dropped 80 feet or more in some areas in recent years, requiring many vineyards and rural homeowners to drill costly new wells.

“We are trying to do something,” Reaugh said. “We are trying to solve our water problems here today.”