North County groups insist water won't be exported from Paso basin

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

Two North County groups with a plan to manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin adamantly oppose banking water, selling it or exporting it out of San Luis Obispo County and have taken issue with another group they say is misleading the public about their intentions.

The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions and PRO Water Equity have been working for months to establish the Paso Robles Basin Water District.

The district would, among other things, have the power to balance water in the basin, which has seen precipitous declines in water levels that have caused some wells to dry up.

The organizations say that another small group of property owners, led by their spokeswoman Cindy Steinbeck of Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles, have been disseminating information claiming that PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity want to bank water — and sell or export it out of the county.

“Ms. Steinbeck is engaging in a smear campaign intended to deceive and confuse residents with the intent of protecting a select group of property owners unwilling to collaborate on solutions to the declining groundwater levels,” said Jerry Reaugh, chairman of PRAAGS, in a press release issued Wednesday. “We are in a critical situation where honest discourse and partnership is needed. Deception and half-truths are counterproductive to this effort.”

The groups’ response comes two days after the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors asked staff to draft an ordinance banning the exporting of water from the county.

“PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity have said repeatedly that creating a water district is not about water banking,” Reaugh said. “To me, it’s a silly notion. How are we going to export water from a basin that doesn’t have any water?”

Water banking refers to the storage of water underground for use later during dry periods.

Steinbeck, director of marketing and public relations for her family’s winery, said Thursday in an email to The Tribune that “asking questions and raising concerns must be done and should be welcomed by Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions and PRO Water Equity.”

“Open and honest conversation is absolutely necessary when discussing and making decisions regarding our precious groundwater basin,” she said.

Steinbeck asserted in a Viewpoint published in November 2013 in The Tribune that homeowners and landowners should stand up against entities that might sell or export Paso Robles’ groundwater or limit their groundwater rights.

She has served as spokeswoman for Protect Our Water Rights, a group of overlying landowners who filed a legal action in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, asking that it confirm their right to pump the water on their land.

Steinbeck said, “Imported water is ‘owned’ by the importer.” Native groundwater, which she referred to as natural water or “what is under our soil,” is for the residents of the basin, she said.

“PRAAGS/PWE stating, ‘we will not export local water’ or ‘water from the basin’ does not address the distinction in ownership,” she said. “The only way PRAAGS & PWE can assure the North County that there is no threat of ‘water banking’ (water exchanges, water transfers or conjunctive use) is to not seek special export powers in the legislation.”

It has never been their intention to support a district that would export water, Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, told The Tribune on Thursday.

As a result of public concern about water exportation, a petition to the Local Agency Formation Commission calling for a special election to form a water district has been revised to include language stating that the district “shall not export water” from the basin.

Luft hopes the language will “put it to rest.”

“We don’t have enough water now, so why would anyone want to export anything,” she said. “I just can’t even fathom how someone could come up with such a theory. Our goal is to manage and balance the basin, and hopefully recover the levels, but to all of our benefit.”