North County water district bill will likely be amended

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

A bill to create a Paso Robles groundwater management district will likely be amended to address concerns that property owners in the district would have too much influence as it is currently written.

At the recommendation of the California Office of Legislative Counsel and the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, negotiations are underway to amend AB 2453, the Paso Robles basin water district bill, in order to allow non-landowners to hold the three at-large seats on the board of directors. The other six members of the board of directors would still be landowners.

The amendment has the support of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors as well as the two North County groups that proposed the legislation, Pro Water Equity and Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions. The bill by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, has already cleared the Assembly and is under consideration in the Senate.

“The proposed amendments that are currently being negotiated with all of the stakeholders have one simple goal and that is to improve the bill,” Achadjian said. “I hope that we can achieve a consensus on the direction of the bill so we can move forward together with the shared goal of protecting the Paso Robles groundwater basin and the environment.”

County supervisors have determined the basin is facing a crisis and support the process of forming a district to manage it. Residents of the 300,000-acre basin report aquifer levels are falling, causing wells to go dry and requiring deeper ones to be drilled.

As the bill is currently written, all nine members of the board of directors must be landowners in the district. The amendment would change the bill to allow any registered voter in the district to be allowed to run for its three at-large seats.

The other six seats would be held by landowners according to the amount of acreage they own in the district. All of the directors would have to live in the district or within two miles of it.

The impetus for the amendment was the concern by some residents of the proposed district, as well as groups such as labor unions, that the current board structure disenfranchises non-landowners. Critics of the proposed district want all the seats on the board chosen by popular vote.

“We are receiving lots of phone calls and letters on both sides of this bill,” said Toby Ewing, a consultant with the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. “We are trying to find a path that will lead to improved groundwater management and a governance structure that has the confidence of the residents of the district.”

The Senate committee has until June 27 to make the amendments, approve the bill and send it on to the full Senate for a vote. If the bill is amended, it will have to go back to the Assembly for a concurrence vote.

Other minor amendments to the bill have also been proposed but these are technical housekeeping word changes that do not significantly change the district, said Sue Luft, PRO Water Equity president.

On Monday, the Board of Supervisors sent a letter signed by Chairman Bruce Gibson to Achadjian supporting the amendment. The change is consistent with the county’s platform that all stakeholders in the district be represented.

“The amended version actually addresses concerns expressed by board members and the public in that it broadens the population of interested parties in the basin eligible to serve on the governing board,” Gibson said in the letter.

Susan Harvey of the group North County Watch, which opposes the district as proposed, said the amendment will not change their opposition.

“Our position hasn’t changed,” she said. “We want all of the board of directors elected by popular vote.”