Supervisors move forward on formation of Paso Robles water district

A road leads to well site in a vineyard near Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.
A road leads to well site in a vineyard near Highway 46 east of Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A divided San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided Tuesday to take another step toward forming a new Paso Robles groundwater management district.

The board voted 3-2, as expected, to send an application to the county Local Agency Formation Commission to form a Paso Robles Basin Water District and to work with LAFCO to hold public hearings on the controversial proposal. The final decision on whether to form the district would be voted on by landowners.

Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton opposed the motion made by Supervisor Frank Mecham.

The application now moves to LAFCO, which is responsible for determining the powers of the proposed district in managing the Paso Robles basin, where groundwater levels have plummeted from decades of overpumping, a situation exacerbated by drought.

During almost three hours of public testimony, the nearly 40 speakers reflected the deep divisions over the issue. About a dozen people supported the management plan, while 16 people opposed it, although some of them said they could reconsider the proposal after more research is done.

Among the concerns is a possible $2.10-per-acre property fee to cover a $950,000 annual operating budget.

Before casting her vote, Compton said she didn’t oppose a water district outright but couldn’t support something she wasn’t certain had the support of all landowners.

“We’re in a drought … I don’t believe anyone will disagree on that,” she said. “But I do believe there are disagreements on how to (manage the groundwater), as evident today.”

Arnold expressed concerns about the broad but still undetermined range of powers the district would have. She agreed with Compton on wanting a clearer message from landowners.

“I believe if the landowners of the basin want to create a water district, it’s their choice,” she said. “… But what I don’t want to do is include people who don’t want to be included.”

The idea of a management district was broached in 2013 as aquifer levels dropped and the supervisors approved an emergency ordinance requiring conservation offsets for any new agricultural planting in the basin. The county is now drafting a long-term offset solution before the emergency ordinance expires in August.

The proposed management district is based on a bill authored by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, and signed by the governor last year. The proposal gained additional urgency with the passage of a new state law requiring troubled groundwater basins to be sustainably managed by June 30, 2017.

If a local district isn’t formed, management could revert to the state.

Mecham deemed the state law, called the  Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a “game changer.”

“You will be managed, like it or not,” he said, emphasizing that the proposed district offers local control of the basin.

He noted that every step in the two-year struggle over how to address the groundwater crisis had been done through compromises on both sides, and he urged continued compromise.

He also said the best way to know what landowners want is to move forward with the LAFCO application.

“If you want to know what their voice is in this, then give them the vote,” Mecham said to Compton and Arnold. “Let them vote on it.”

Supervisor Adam Hill agreed with Mecham, adding that he wished the board had acted sooner on the groundwater crisis.

Hill called local control the “bedrock” of conservatism, saying, “We have here what I see as the best way to move forward.”

The proposed district would be governed by a board of directors consisting of nine members: six landowners and three at-large seats held by registered voters in the district.

The six landowner seats would be held by two landowners with less than 40 acres, two owning 40 to 400 acres, and two with more than 400 acres.

Some speakers criticized the proposal as favoring large landowners. Among them was Bill Pelfrey of Templeton, who called the application “an assault against all of ag.”

Supporters said that fine-tuning how the district would be governed took years of effort and the result is fair and balanced local control.

“Let’s keep going, and going on something proactive,” North County vintner Dana Merrill said. “There’s going to be naysayers every step of the way.”

Merrill is a member of Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, which consists mostly of farmers of irrigated agriculture who co-proposed Achadjian’s bill.

Steve Sinton of Shandon said the LAFCO application would give landowners a voice.

“We’re at the point where you will either grant us or deny us the right to vote, and it’s the right to vote that we seek,” he said.

As proposed, the Paso Robles groundwater district would encompass 7,293 parcels on 774 square miles.