Supervisors change stance on Paso Robles groundwater district

In a major departure from its previous stance, the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday conditioned its support for a bill in the state Legislature to form a Paso Robles water district on changing the bill so that the district is formed by a majority of landowners in the basin.

The bill has already been approved by the state Assembly and has moved to the Senate, where the Senate Governance and Finance Committee recommended making some changes.

In two separate votes on Tuesday, county supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose those Senate committee changes unless the bill also is amended to change how the district is formed.

The majority of supervisors now want to require an equal vote by all landowners on whether to form the district — rather than a weighted vote based on the amount of acreage each landowner has in the district.

“We’ve stepped off into uncharted territory, here,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, chairman of the board, after the votes had been taken.

It is unclear what effect this change of position will have on the bill. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, has frequently said he introduced the legislation because it had the support of the supervisors.

It also is unclear whether the changes will affect a vote that is scheduled today on the bill in the Senate Governance and Finance Committee.

Committee consultants recommended that the bill be changed so that three of the members of the board of directors are open to any district residents rather than just to landowners.

The committee consultants also recommended the county Board of Supervisors would initially appoint the water district’s board of director, who would then be chosen by basin residents and landowners in subsequent elections.

In the second 3-2 vote, county supervisors said they would only support that second proposed change to the bill if the method for forming the district is changed.

In both of the key votes Tuesday, supervisors Debbie Arnold, Frank Mecham and Caren Ray voted to back the one-landowner, one-vote formation concept. Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill opposed the idea.

The votes were a major change for Mecham, who had previously sided with Gibson and Hill.

During the hearing, Mecham said he was swayed by the fact that some important groups, such as the county Farm Bureau and cattlemen’s associations, supported the idea of a popular vote to form the district.

“If it’s a go, it’s a go,” he said. “If it isn’t, we are back to Square One.”

Arnold’s vote was consistent with past votes she has cast in which she supported the general idea of a water district but only if it was formed by a popular vote. Ray had also previously voted against supporting Achadjian’s bill out of similar concerns.

The bill was originally conceived by two North County water groups, who proposed a hybrid board of directors consisting of a combination of landowners of various sizes and three popularly elected members.

After the meeting, members of one of the groups, the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, said it is too soon to know what the supervisors’ change of position will mean for the bill and how they will proceed in the future.

“We are still trying to figure out what happened here and what it means,” said Jerry Reaugh, president of the group.

Tuesday’s hearing attracted 50 public speakers, most of whom opposed Achadjian’s bill. Many of the opponents said they would prefer that the Board of Supervisors managed the Paso Robles basin themselves under the auspices of the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District without the creation of an independent water district.

“Managing the basin is what you were elected to do,” said Andrew Christie of the local Sierra Club. “You have all the tools you need to manage the basin.”

The water district was proposed in response to a crisis in the basin of falling aquifer levels, resulting in wells going dry or requiring that new deeper wells be drilled.