Paso Robles groundwater district at least a year away, LAFCO says

The county Local Agency Formation Commission will play a pivotal role in the possible formation of a Paso Robles groundwater management district, but it will likely be next year before the panel can get to work.

Two crucial steps must be taken before the seven-person commission can begin the lengthy process of creating a new district, David Church, commission executive director told the panel Thursday.

The commission consists of representatives from the county, cities and special districts.

Most importantly, a bill by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, must be signed into law allowing the proposed district to have a modified board of directors. Also backers of the proposed district must submit to LAFCO an application to form the district, which would then be analyzed by the commission.

“Part of LAFCO’s analysis would include a review and determination of powers that the district may be authorized to provide within its boundaries,” Church said.

Last August, proponents of the district said they hope to have it formed in a year. Church has said that timeframe is ambitious but possible.

The commission also discussed whether it will have enough scientific information to form the district. Gwen Pelfry of Templeton said the commission should wait until geological and other technical studies are completed before proceeding.

“How can good decisions be made in the formation of the district if we don’t know what we are trying to solve?” she asked.

Church and county Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district encompasses most of the basin, said there is enough evidence that the basin is facing a crisis to begin the process of forming a district to manage it. Residents of the 300,000-acre basin report falling aquifer levels, causing wells to go dry and deeper ones drilled.

“More information is always beneficial but, at some point, you have to make a decision with what you have or you get stuck because there is never enough information to make a decision,” Church said.

Achadjian’s bill passed a key test recently when it was approved by the Assembly Local Government Committee. The full Assembly must vote on the bill by May 30. If approved, the bill would be heard in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which has until June 27 to vote. It would then go to the full Senate, which has until Aug. 31 to act.

Final approval would come if Gov. Jerry Brown signs the bill into law.

The bill allows the water district’s nine-member board of directors to be composed of a combination of property owners of various acreages and residents elected by popular vote. Proponents say the hybrid board would balance the needs of residents and agriculture and prevent any one group from dominating the district.

Backers of the district are a coalition of two North County water groups. PRO Water Equity represents rural residents and small landowners, and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions represents irrigated agriculture, mostly vintners.

They say they are making frequent trips to Sacramento to lobby lawmakers to approve the bill. They plan to make the application to LAFCO once they are confident the bill will become law.

In order to qualify, the application must be accompanied by petitions that contain the signatures of at least half the property owners in the basin.

Forming the district will take most of next year. The lengthy process will include several public hearings and a chance for property owners in the basin to protest if they don’t like the district, Church said.

Eventually, an election would be held to form and finance the district and elect its board of directors. The election to form the district would be decided by property owners on a one-acre, one-vote basis.

The election to finance the district must also be approved before the district could be formed, Church said. Funding of the district would be based on Proposition 218, which sets assessments by districts based on the benefit each property owner would receive.

The proponents estimate that in order to generate the estimated $1.2 million annual district budget, rural residents would be charged $60 to $80 a year, irrigated agriculture would be assessed $14 to $15 an acre and rangeland would be assessed 50 cents an acre.