Blue Ribbon panel endorses Paso Robles groundwater management plan

Efforts to establish a water management district for the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin received a key endorsement Thursday by a panel charged with advising the county on management of the basin.

The Blue Ribbon Committee Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Management Plan voted unanimously to endorse plans by two North County water groups to form a water district for the basin that is designed to give equal governance authority to vineyard owners and rural residents.

The vote is significant because it shows that the proposed management plan has the backing of a wide range of stakeholders in the basin, said Larry Werner, chairman of the Blue Ribbon Committee.

The Blue Ribbon Committee has a 17-member board made up of vintners, rural residents, business owners, government officials, activists and at-large members. Similarly, PRO Water Equity and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, the two groups working to form the district, also represent a divergent range of interests.

“This is huge,” Werner said. “In terms of the fact that these two groups were at polar opposites a year ago and have come together is very significant.”

Paavo Ogren, county public works director, also supports the proposed water district. He and his staff would be instrumental in implementing a new district.

“I believe that the joint proposal is a result of deliberative and objective discussions to develop fair representation on the governing board of a groundwater management district for the Paso basin,” he said in a letter to the Blue Ribbon Committee.

The committee also urged the Board of Supervisors to work with state Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian to introduce legislation that will allow the water district to have an expanded board of directors.

State law only allows board representation on such special districts to be based on land ownership. Any board of directors that deviates from that model requires special legislation.

The makeup of the nine-member board for the proposed Paso Robles Basin Water District would have three seats elected by the residents of the district and six seats representing landowners of various acreages. The main goal of the district is to maintain local control of the basin, Werner said.

“It’s very encouraging that we have the opportunity to maintain local control and have proper representation,” he said. “We certainly don’t want the state taking over.”

Water levels in the basin have shown significant declines in recent years, causing wells to go dry and forcing vineyards and rural homeowners to drill new, expensive wells.