Supervisors vote to move ahead with Paso Robles water management plan

San Luis Obispo County supervisors on Tuesday voted 4-1 to begin the process of forming a public district to manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The board directed county Public Works staff to begin the process of preparing a petition to be submitted to the county Local Agency Formation Commission to form a water district that will be responsible for managing the nearly 800-square-mile Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Supervisor Debbie Arnold, whose district includes portions of the water basin, dissented.

County staff is expected to take six to eight months to draw up the petition, which will include the boundaries of the proposed district as well as a description of its powers and authorities, and a list of the services it would provide. The process is estimated to cost the county $350,000.

When the petition is ready, it will take another vote by the supervisors to pass a resolution formally asking LAFCO to form the district. Eventually, a majority of landowners in the basin will have to vote to approve the district before it can become a reality.

“To me, this is a pretty simple decision,” said Supervisor Bruce Gibson, chairman of the board. “We need to get this before LAFCO, and they need to get it before the voters.”

The vote was the culmination of a yearlong process that included passage of a bill, AB 2453 by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, that specifically allowed the formation of a Paso Robles water basin district. The bill allows either the Board of Supervisors or 10 percent of the property owners in the basin to file the petition with LAFCO.

Mirroring past comments and votes, Arnold said she opposed the district because she thinks it is unnecessary and would duplicate efforts the board is already pursuing to manage water issues in the county using the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

“The taxpayers already pay for a large county staff to do this kind of thing,” she said. “I have a lot of confidence in our flood control district.”

Arnold said she would prefer getting 10 percent of the property owners in the basin to petition LAFCO. That would provide a good indication of whether property owners in the basin actually support forming a district, she said.

The other four supervisors disagreed, saying a petition by the Board of Supervisors is the most expeditious way of getting the LAFCO process started. A new state law will go into effect Jan. 1 that will require troubled basins such as the one in Paso Robles to be sustainably managed, or the state can step in and take control.

“Doing nothing is absolutely unacceptable,” said Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes much of the water basin. “I am going to support sending the district to LAFCO.”

The hearing attracted about 30 public speakers who were evenly split between supporting and opposing the water district. Supporters said the district would provide a way for residents of the basin to manage the crisis there, which includes water levels dropping more than 70 feet since 1997 and hundreds of wells going dry.

“We need local control for a local problem,” said Steve Lohr of J. Lohr Vineyards of Paso Robles.

Opponents echoed Arnold’s belief that the district is unnecessary.

“We don’t need a water district when we already have a flood control district,” said Ted Gilbert of Paso Robles. “I think we are going to be fine if we leave things the way they are.”