Paso Robles residents, officials alarmed by evolving water district bill

Residents and elected officials of the Paso Robles groundwater basin reacted with alarm and confusion last week when they learned that a bill in the state Legislature to form a water district to manage the basin had grown from its original simple three pages to a complex 17-page document.

The confusion was so profound that it caused the two North County groups that had originally proposed forming the district to withdraw their support for the bill and rendered the county Board of Supervisors incapable of reaching agreement on their position on the bill after originally supporting it.

Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district contains the bulk of the proposed Paso water district, met this week with the bill’s author Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, to discuss the bill. Mecham, however, remains undecided because Achadjian told him the bill is still evolving as it moves through the Legislature.

“At this point it’s hard to say whether I support the bill or not because I just don’t know what the final version will look like,” Mecham said.

The other North County supervisor, Debbie Arnold, said she does not want to take a stand on the bill, preferring to let landowners in the basin vote on whether they want a district.

Achadjian said he will only continue to carry the bill if it has the support of the Board of Supervisors.

“Once the bill’s language is finalized, I will seek the board’s advice to either continue to carry the bill or put a stop to it,” he said.

Supervisor Bruce Gibson, who chairs the board, echoed Achadjian’s call for the supervisors to place a discussion of the bill on an agenda so that they can take an official stance on the bill.

A week ago, supervisors held a lengthy discussion of the water district bill but voted not to schedule a hearing at which they could take a position.

“The bill is a mess right now,” Gibson said. “I am waiting for the two North County supervisors for guidance as to what they want the next step to be.”

One landowner, one vote

State and local officials familiar with the current version of the bill say the most recent changes give it a variety of management tools while leaving the power to create the district with basin landowners and the power to shape the district with the county Local Agency Formation Commission.

“The bill has changed a lot,” said David Church, LAFCO’s executive director. “What the Legislature has done is give us a menu of powers and authorities that we can choose from, so the bill is much more robust in that regard.”

The original three-page bill simply altered state water law to allow the district to have a hybrid board of directors consisting of a mixture of landowners of various sizes and at-large members. Those provisions have remained essentially intact as the bill has made its labyrinthine way through the Legislature.

The bill emerged intact from the Assembly in May, but two Senate committees have made substantial amendments. In June, the Senate Governance and Finance Committee made two changes requested by the county Board of Supervisors.

One change requires that the district be formed on the basis of one landowner, one vote, rather than voting based on acreage owned. The other allowed registered voters in the basin rather than just property owners to serve as at-large members on the water district’s board of directors.

A majority of the supervisors voted in favor of the one landowner, one vote formation method as a way to give a majority of landowners in the basin a say in the district’s formation rather than just a small group of about 30 large landowners.

But Gibson thinks that move was a mistake because it unnecessarily complicated the bill and could ultimately lead to it failing.

The basin contains about 4,000 landowners so more than 2,000 would have to vote to approve the formation of a district. Gibson thinks it is questionable that would happen.

“That amendment is focusing the discussion away from the real question, which is establishing a governance structure to manage the basin,” he said.

Gibson noted that the basin is facing an environmental disaster that requires prompt action. Water levels in the basin, particularly immediately east of Paso Robles, have dropped more than 70 feet since 1997, resulting in wells going dry, homeowners needing to drill deeper wells at considerable expense and some being forced to truck in water.

Amendments add district powers

The bill then moved to the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee where it was further amended in early July to add a list of potential powers and authorities the water district could be given. The additions were approved by Achadjian, the bill’s author.

“I accepted those amendments as they were consistent with the direction supported by the Board of Supervisors,” Achadjian said. “It is important to note that the proposed district and these amendments must still go through the LAFCO process before they will take effect.”

The additions covered a wide range of management tools the district could employ, including fines for violators of the district’s rules, the development of groundwater management plans and the levying of groundwater pumping fees.

Those provisions needed to be added because California water law contains no specific language about what powers a groundwater management district is allowed to have. Those powers needed to be delineated in a bill.

“The amendments address the powers and authorities of the proposed district, and were suggested by the Senate committee on natural resources to ensure the district had the authority they would need to properly manage water in the basin,” Achadjian said.

The committee selected the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency in southern Ventura County as the source for that list of powers and authorities. Fox Canyon was selected because it is considered the most up-to-date groundwater district in the state.

LAFCO has final say

“We wanted to give LAFCO the best set of powers and authorities to pick from,” said Dennis O’Connor, principal consultant to the natural resources committee. “Fox Canyon has been updated several times and best reflects the current state of groundwater management in the state.”

The most recent amendments were also careful to include provisions that reserve for LAFCO the authority to decide which of those powers and authorities to give to the district.

“LAFCO can choose those powers it thinks are appropriate to tailor the bill to the specific needs of the area,” O’Connor said. “They are not under any requirement to implement all of them.”

If the water district bill is signed into law, landowners of the Paso basin could then petition LAFCO to form the district. This would be a lengthy process that could take up to a year and require several public hearings.

According to the current version of the bill, both the petition to LAFCO to form the district and the actual formation vote after the LAFCO process will require a vote of the majority of the landowners. That means that two votes of more than 2,000 basin residents would be needed to form the district.

In the meantime, the bill has moved on to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where a hearing is set for Aug. 4. Further amendments are possible there.

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