Votes on Paso Robles groundwater basin district set for March

In March, voters and property owners in the Paso Robles groundwater basin will vote on whether to form a management district for the basin.

In three separate votes during a daylong hearing Tuesday, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors scheduled three elections for March 8. In two elections, property owners and residents will decide whether they want the district formed and who will sit on the district’s board of directors.

In the third election, voters will decide whether to approve a parcel tax that will generate nearly $1 million a year for the next five years to fund the district’s activities. The formation of the district requires a simple majority, but the parcel tax requires approval by two-thirds of the voters. The election will be held through mail-in ballots that will be due March 8.

“I think we should stay the course and give the people a chance to vote on this,” said Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district covers most of the groundwater basin.

Mecham was joined by Supervisors Adam Hill, Bruce Gibson and Lynn Compton in voting to schedule the elections. Compton said she adamantly opposed forming a water district but voted for the elections to give the people a say.

County staff also pointed out that state law requires that elections must be held because in September the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission voted to approve holding them. County Clerk Tommy Gong told supervisors that, as a result, he is statutorily required to schedule elections even if county supervisors fail to give authorization. Compton cited this as another reason for her decision to support the elections even though she opposes the district.

“I believe this water district has been pushed through by people who use 90 percent of the water,” Compton said, “but I believe at this point we have an obligation to put this out to a vote.”

Supervisor Debbie Arnold voted consistently against the district and the elections. She said she wants the county to manage the basin rather than a water district and is concerned about the boundaries of the district and complexity of forming a district.

“To me, this is very premature,” she said. “There is too much confusion here.”

The boundaries of the district were approved in a separate vote Tuesday. They are based on a study of the groundwater basin done in 2002, called the Fugro Report. The district includes much of the North County east of Paso Robles, Templeton and Atascadero.

Supervisors approved the district’s boundaries in a 3-2 vote, with Compton joining Arnold in opposing the boundaries. Arnold said she was concerned that state water officials might not accept the boundaries and force the county to change them.

The three votes Tuesday attracted considerable public comment, much of it against the formation of a district. Opponents said the district amounts to government overreach and the proposed parcel tax is unnecessary.

“This is a devious scheme by LAFCO and some of you on the board to bring in a new tax,” said Tom Dawson of San Luis Obispo, referring to the Local Agency Formation Commission.

Supporters of the district said it is needed because the basin is in trouble and plagued by falling aquifer levels. They also said residents of the basin should have an opportunity to decide whether the district is formed.

“If you believe in democracy, even if you oppose the formation of a district, you have to let us vote,” said Steve Sinton of Shandon.