Two key groups drop their support for Paso Robles groundwater district bill

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 water groups that proposed forming a management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin announced Monday they are withdrawing their support for a bill in the state Legislature that would help create the district.

The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions and PRO Water Equity each sent letters Monday to Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, the bill’s author, and Bruce Gibson, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, announcing they no longer support AB 2453 because of extensive amendments made to it in the state Senate.

The letters ask the Board of Supervisors to take the lead in analyzing the amendments and working to form the water district.

“It is our view that the county Board of Supervisors is better suited to take the leadership role with regard to the legislative process and the subsequent discussion of how the basin is to be managed,” said Jerry Reaugh, PRAAGS chairman.

Without the support of the groups that originally pushed for the legislation, the fate of the bill is now uncertain.

Achadjian said Monday he continues to support the bill but only if local legislators and the community support it. Supervisors Bruce Gibson, Frank Mecham and Debbie Arnold said Monday they don’t know what the loss of the groups’ support will mean.

The groups’ change of position was prompted by amendments made to the bill after it was approved by the Assembly on May 28 and had moved on to the state Senate.

On June 17, as the bill made its way through the first of two Senate committees, the county supervisors voted 3-2 to ask Achadjian to amend the bill so that approval for forming a district would be made by an equal vote by all landowners — rather than a weighted vote based on the amount of acreage owned.

The vote was a major change of position by Mecham who had supported the original bill but opted to amend it due to opposition by the Farm Bureau and other large groups.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold said she supported the amendment in order to give residents of the district a say in the district’s formation.

“For me the formation vote was important,” she said Monday. “It is important for people to understand what they are voting for.”

A second Senate committee made more changes to the bill, adding language about how the water district would be managed and other details. The original 3-page bill approved by the Assembly grew to 17 pages.

“This has gotten completely out of hand,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said Monday. “At this point I don’t know where it will go.”

The actual 17-page bill wasn’t published until late last week, which is when the two groups saw how dramatically the original text had been changed. It was then that the groups decided to drop their support, Reaugh said.

Achadjian said Monday he still supports the bill and will continue to do so until it loses the support of local elected officials.

“I introduced this legislation based upon the support from the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors and the city of Paso Robles,” Achadjian said. “While I understand that PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity have chosen to withdraw their support for AB 2453, I will continue to carry out the wishes of our local government until they tell me otherwise.”

In their letters, the two groups called upon the two North County supervisors, Mecham and Arnold, to unify the basin’s diverse interests.

The groups said they don’t have the resources to analyze the extensive amendments, but would continue to support the formation of a water district with a hybrid board of directors — the distinguishing characteristic of the original legislation. The hybrid board would be made up of a mixture of residents, and landowners of varying sized properties.

“The county’s network of resources makes the Board of Supervisors better suited to move things forward,” said Sue Luft, PRO Water Equity president.

The full Senate is scheduled to vote on AB 2453 in early August.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune