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Bill to form North County water district regains supervisor's support

Supervisor Frank Mecham at a Nov. 26, 2013, hearing on the county's emergency ordinance enacted to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin.
Supervisor Frank Mecham at a Nov. 26, 2013, hearing on the county's emergency ordinance enacted to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

In what could be a watershed moment, a bill in the California Legislature has been amended one last time to make it easier to allow for the formation of a Paso Robles groundwater management district.

More importantly, this final version of the bill has won back support from a key member of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, Frank Mecham, whose district covers most of the basin.

Mecham initially supported the water bill but then withdrew his support after it was heavily amended and became more complex. This resulted in the Board of Supervisors being unable to agree on whether or not to collectively support the bill, leaving its fate in the Legislature uncertain.

“These changes appear fine to me, so I am going to be able to support this bill,” Mecham said Tuesday. “The sooner we can get a water district in place, the better off we are going to be.”

Also on Tuesday, the Paso Robles City Council voted 4-0 to support the amended bill. Mayor Pro Tem Ed Steinbeck recused himself from the vote. His niece Cindy Steinbeck, an owner of Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery, has led a group of basin property owners in suing the county over water rights.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday made the final amendments to AB 2453 by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo. The bill allows for the formation of a water district for the Paso Robles basin with a board of directors consisting of a mixture of property owners and residents.

The bill also outlines procedures for forming the district and some of the powers that it would have. The district is intended to create a local management structure for the basin, which many agree is in crisis with aquifer levels having dropped 70 feet in some areas since 1997.

In a letter to county supervisors Tuesday, Achadjian said the final changes were made to the bill to make it easier to administer. He gave supervisors a deadline of Aug. 13 to inform him whether they support the bill and want him to continue to sponsor it.

“Now, with this legislation nearing the end of the legislative process, I need to hear collectively from the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors in order to proceed any further,” he said.

“There will be no changes to this legislation from this point forward,” Achadjian added.

The most significant of Tuesday’s amendments is one that would lower the threshold for petitioning to form the district. Previously, a majority of the landowners in the basin would have had to petition the Local Agency Formation Commission to form the district. The amended bill now requires 10 percent of landowners to sign the petition.

Mecham said he supports this change because it would make it easier to start the process of forming the district.

“This would get the petition in front of LAFCO,” he said. “You are still going to have to go through the LAFCO process.”

LAFCO would hold several public hearings during the formation process. A vote of a majority of the landowners to actually form the district would still be needed once the LAFCO process is finished. The role of LAFCO would be to create the district, including determining its boundaries and defining its powers and authorities.

Another amendment to the bill would allow the county Board of Supervisors to petition LAFCO to form the district — instead of getting approval of 10 percent of landowners.

“The Board of Supervisors could petition LAFCO to form the district after holding a noticed public hearing,” said David Church, LAFCO executive director. “It’s a more expedient way of getting a petition to LAFCO.”

After a successful petition from landowners or from the Board of Supervisors has been filed, it is then up to LAFCO to go through the process of creating a district.

The Appropriations Committee also made two other changes to the bill Tuesday. One requires that people holding three at-large seats on the district’s board of directors be registered voters of the district rather than just residents of the district.

The other removes language from the bill that does not apply to the Paso Robles basin. Some of technical language in the bill was taken directly from legislation that formed the Fox Canyon Water District in Ventura County that was used as a template for Achadjian’s bill.

These final changes have also won back support for the bill from PRO Water Equity, a group of rural homeowners in the basin. They were one of two groups that originally proposed the bill but then, like Mecham, withdrew their support because it was being heavily amended as it moved through the Legislature.

“The latest revisions have resulted in a bill which PRO Water Equity can again support,” said Sue Luft, the group’s president. “Creation of the district will require broad-based consensus of the landowners in the basin, as well as the support of the SLO County Board of Supervisors.”

The other group that originally proposed the legislation, Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, is still reviewing the amendments and has not taken a position, said Chairman Jerry Reaugh.

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