Bill to create North County water district passes state Assembly

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.
Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

UPDATE 10 a.m. Thursday: By the end of Wednesday's state Assembly session, AB 2453 had gained 50 “yes” votes and 11 “no” votes. Additional Assembly members chose not to vote.

Original story: Legislation to form a Paso Robles groundwater management district received a big boost Wednesday when it was approved by the California Assembly.

The legislation will move to the state Senate for consideration.

“This bill is the best chance for my community to move forward under very difficult circumstances,” bill sponsor Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian said at the meeting, which was webcast live from Sacramento.

Wednesday’s vote was a crucial step in supporting local residents’ efforts to manage dwindling groundwater levels in northern San Luis Obispo County.

The bill required a majority vote of 41 votes in the Assembly, which it received straightaway Wednesday morning at 41-8. As the floor session continued, the approvals grew to 45 votes by midafternoon. Representatives from Achadjian’s office said later Wednesday that they expected to get more “yes” votes from the 80-member Assembly by day’s end.

Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, introduced the bill to provide local control over the basin, which has become the center of a water crisis for rural homeowners and vintners fearful of losing their main water supply.

AB 2453 would allow the proposed water district to operate under a hybrid board of directors composed of landowners and district residents. The board would have nine members — three elected directly by district residents and six elected by landowners in the basin based on whether they own large, medium-sized or small parcels.

The bill “is the best solution to help local homeowners and the agriculture community effectively deal with the water crisis that continues to affect our local economy,” Achadjian said in a written statement Wednesday afternoon praising the Assembly’s vote.

The vote also will help deter a potential state takeover of the basin, a possibility because Gov. Jerry Brown has included $1.9 million in the state budget to start managing groundwater basins that do not have a management structure, according to the statement.

“While this bill is still a work in progress, it is our community’s way of ensuring the state does not interfere with the basin and attempt to manage our water for us,” Achadjian wrote.

The water district legislation is a compromise between two North County groups: PRO Water Equity, which represents some of the basin’s rural homeowners, and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), which mostly represents vintners. The district’s formation was discussed at length by these groups and greenlighted by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors after several high-profile public meetings.

Leaders from both water groups said Wednesday they were pleased with the Assembly’s approval.

But the latest hurdle wasn’t cleared without argument.

Three Assembly members, including Achadjian, spoke in favor of the bill, while Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, spoke against it.

Williams said the new district’s board would give too much weight to large landowners instead of a popular vote of district residents.

“We all need water, and we all need access to it. Handing this kind of power to the landowners, not the people, is wrong,” he said.

But PRAAGS chairman Jerry Reaugh later said Achadjian’s special legislation “does precisely the opposite to ensure that nobody can take over.”

PRO Water Equity President Sue Luft added: “We went through this for months. We gave everybody a voice and nobody control. We wouldn’t be supporting it otherwise.”

At the hearing, Achadjian reiterated that without the hybrid board of directors that his bill creates, state law allows for a regular state water district to form and be governed entirely by landowner-based voting. His bill works to alter that setup to meet San Luis Obispo County’s needs, he said.

“By letting this go the other way, we’re saying we don’t appreciate a compromise. Let’s show appreciation for local government for the job they have done,” Achadjian said.

Next, the bill will be heard in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, which has until June 27 to vote. If approved there, it would go to the full Senate, which would have until Aug. 31 to act.

Final approval would come if Brown signs the bill into law in the fall.

If the bill is signed, additional steps will need to be taken to form the water district.

An application will have to be made to the county Local Agency Formation Commission, a body that approves the formation of special districts and sets their powers and boundaries.

Once a petition to form the water district is received, LAFCO will begin the lengthy process of reviewing it, which will include multiple opportunities for public input, David Church, the commission’s executive officer, previously said.

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