Supporters of a water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin face a daunting hurdle — persuading two-thirds of the approximately 6,000 people living in the basin area to agree to a parcel tax that will raise nearly $1 million a year for five years.
As Bob Brown, a North County vintner and vocal supporter of the groundwater management district, has said publicly, it’s “going to be a heavy lift.”
The proposed property tax is one of three complicated and interrelated elections that will decide whether a management district for the basin is established, whether a parcel tax will be levied and who will run that district if it’s formed.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that different sets of voters will decide each of those questions.
Property owners will vote on whether to form the district, and all registered voters will decide whether the district would be funded by a parcel tax. San Luis Obispo County elections officials have been clear that both measures must pass if the district is to be implemented.
Ballots for the election will be mailed Feb. 8 and are due back March 8.
The fundamental question residents and property owners in the basin must decide is whether they want a local water district with an elected board of directors to manage the basin or whether they want other governmental agencies to do it. If the district is not formed, management will fall first to the county Board of Supervisors and then, by default, to state water officials.
We need to solve our problems ourselves and not ask outsiders to do it. People from around the state are watching what we do in the Paso Robles basin.
Bill Spencer, owner of Windrose Farms in Creston and a district supporter
County officials have made it clear they don’t have the money and personnel to manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin if the district formation vote and the parcel tax measure fail. State officials have also been explicit that if they are forced to step in and manage the basin in lieu of a district or the county, their approach could be expensive and will be done without voter approval.
The state has declared the Paso Robles basin to be in severe overdraft, meaning that decades of overpumping have caused groundwater levels in much of the basin to fall precipitously in a decline that will continue unless pumping can be significantly curtailed and new sources of water found.
A new state law called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, requires that such basins be sustainably managed by 2020. The SGMA also allows the state to step in and manage a basin if local governments fail to act.
This district would have an extraordinary authority to tax and regulate property in the basin. This is the perfect role for county government.
County Supervisor Debbie Arnold, a district opponent
If a local district is formed, it would have a broad suite of powers to bring the basin into balance. These include the ability to meter wells, levy usage charges and assign pumping limits. It would also have the ability to obtain new water sources, such as the Nacimiento Reservoir and recycled water from Paso Robles.
It will be up to the district’s elected board of directors to decide which of those powers to use and how to use them. Metering wells is a common tool water districts use to measure how much water is being pulled from a basin, said Wade Horton, county public works director.
“Metering is typically part of management, but it is not an absolute,” he said. “But I think it’s likely.”
Everyone wants the basin to be managed fairly and equitably, although opinion is split over whether a district or the county should manage the basin.
Supporters of the district say a district that is managed by basin voters and property owners — those who have “skin in the game” — is the best way to maintain local control of a vital resource.
“We need to solve our problems ourselves and not ask outsiders to do it,” said Bill Spencer, owner of Windrose Farm in Creston and a candidate for the district’s board of directors. “People from around the state are watching what we do in the Paso Robles basin.”
Opponents say the district will be an expensive and unnecessary new level of bureaucracy. County Supervisor Debbie Arnold has consistently voted against forming the district and said the county is already effectively managing the basin. Arnold said residents or landowners probably would have to pay for that management, but she said she believes the county would charge less than a groundwater district.
“This district would have an extraordinary authority to tax and regulate property in the basin,” she said. “This is the perfect role for county government.”
Residents and property owners must also decide who will sit on a nine-person board of directors if the district is indeed formed. Seats in two of four categories on the board are contested.
These are the three questions in the election:
Measure A — The parcel tax
In many respects, this is the key vote because it requires a two-thirds approval by registered voters who return their ballots.
The approximately 6,000 people who live within the basin boundaries will decide whether to approve a parcel tax that will generate $957,000 a year for five years. This tax will pay for district activities, including staff salaries, administrative overhead and the cost to prepare a sustainable groundwater management plan.
The cost of the management plan is the big unknown. The Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency in Ventura County could serve as as an example because it is very similar to the proposed Paso Robles district. Fox Canyon recently signed a $1 million contract to write its management plan.
How much an individual property owner would be taxed each year varies widely, depending on how much property is owned and how much is irrigated agriculture. The fees are heavily weighted so that those with irrigated agriculture on their land will pick up about 80 percent of the fees.
Tax Rate Table Property owners would pay a tax based on number of parcels, land use and whether they irrigate. These are the rates: Parcel $15 per parcel Land Use - flat fee Single-family residential, $20 Multi-family residential, $40 Commercial/government, $100 Vacant, $10 Irrigation - per acre Non-irrigated, 25 cents Irrigated, $18
For example, non-irrigated land will be charged 25 cents per acre, while irrigated land will be charged $18 per acre, Horton said. His department developed the fee schedule.
In addition to the per-acre charge, a parcel will be charged if it contains a single- or multifamily residence, has a commercial or government building, or is vacant.
For example, a property owner with a single-family residence on 10 acres and no irrigated agriculture would pay $37.50. This is based on a formula that calls for a $15-per-year parcel charge, a $20-per-year single-family residence charge, plus 25 cents per acre for the non-irrigated land.
In contrast, if that same parcel were used entirely for irrigated agriculture, $205 in annual fees would be charged. Broken down, those fees would be $180 for the 10 irrigated acres, plus a $15-a-year parcel charge and a $10-a-year undeveloped-land charge.
“The goal of the funding formula is to develop an equitable and reasonable allocation of costs based on the best data available that is simple to understand, accounts for the fact that all parcels in the Paso basin need to comply with the SGMA and is representative of the historic pumping within the Paso basin,” Horton wrote in a staff report to the county Board of Supervisors in November.
Measure B — To form or not to form
This measure is considerably less complicated than Measure A. It asks the 4,832 property owners in the basin whether they want the district formed.
Unlike Measure A, this measure’s passage requires a simple majority of the property owners who submit ballots. The vote is based on the principle of one landowner, one vote. People who own multiple parcels within the basin, in whole or part, get only one vote.
Both Measures A and B must pass for the district to be formed. In the unlikely event the funding measure passes but the formation vote does not, the county Board of Supervisors could allocate the nearly $1 million in expected annual costs for the county public works department to manage the basin.
To date, the public works department has been managing the basin under the supervision of the Board of Supervisors sitting as the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District. However, the department doesn’t have the funding to develop a state-approved basin management plan and perform the other functions required by the new state regulations, Horton said. Like a water district, the county also would need to hire staff to manage basin activities.
“We are running out of space to put people in our San Luis Obispo offices,” Horton said. “We would need to get additional space, and it would need to be in Paso Robles.”
Choosing a board of directors
Both residents and property owners in the basin must also decide who will serve on the district’s nine-member board of directors — a hybrid board with a combination of property owners and registered voters within the basin.
Members of the board of directors will fall into four categories — large landowners with 400 acres or more, medium landowners with 40 to 399 acres, small landowners with less than 40 acres and registered voters. Each of the landowner categories will get two seats on the board, while registered voters will get three.
Property ownership in the basin is heavily weighted to small landowners. Of the total 4,832 property owners, 4,084 fall into the small landowner category. The medium category has 635 owners.
The large landowner category has only 113 owners but encompasses the lion’s share of the acreage. The large landowners have 246,987 acres in the basin — meaning that 113 property owners control 71 percent of the acreage.
Two of the four categories are contested. The registered voters and large landowner categories will be decided in the election.
The small and medium landowner categories are uncontested, so candidates in those categories will be appointed in lieu of an election, if the district is formed.
What will be decided
Mail-in ballots will be sent to registered voters and property owners in the Paso Robles groundwater basin Feb. 8 to be returned by March 8. Both Measure A and Measure B must be approved for the management district to be formed.
Measure A: Whether to establish a parcel tax to generate nearly $1 million a year to manage the basin. All registered voters in the basin will receive this ballot. A two-thirds majority is required for passage.
Measure B: Whether to form the Paso Robles groundwater management district. All property owners in the basin will receive this ballot. A majority vote is required for passage. Even if this measure passes, it would only take effect if Measure A also passes.
District board of directors: Election of the nine-member board of directors. Three seats will be chosen by registered voters, two seats will be chosen by large landowners with 400 or more acres, two seats will be chosen by medium landowners with 40 to 399 acres, and two seats will be chosen by small landowners with less than 40 acres.