The effort to form a management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin appears to have failed resoundingly, according to preliminary election results Tuesday night.
The failure of the management district leaves the future of the troubled basin uncertain. Many aquifers have fallen by 100 feet or more in areas of the basin, causing some wells to go dry and forcing many well owners in the basin to lower the pumps in their wells or drill new, deeper wells to keep the water running. A new state law mandates that basins like the Paso Robles basin, which are in critical overdraft, be sustainably managed by 2020.
Voters in the basin failed to approve a parcel tax that would have generated nearly $1 million each year for five years to pay for management of the basin. Two-thirds of the registered voters who participated in the election needed to vote in favor of the parcel tax, but only 22 percent voted for the tax.
An overwhelming majority of the property owners, 74 percent, in the basin also voted against forming the district. Even if this measure had been approved, the special district could not be formed without the parcel tax also passing.
The results of the election are still preliminary. San Luis Obispo County elections officials will count any ballots postmarked March 8 that are received by Friday.
Ballots were mailed out Feb. 8 to 7,291 registered voters and 4,830 landowners in the basin. Interest in the election was apparently lukewarm, with only 51 percent of property owners and 47 percent of registered voters turning in their ballots, according to Tuesday night returns.
Although ballots will continue to be counted, the results are unlikely to change considering the overwhelming opposition to both measures. County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong said the ballots counted Tuesday night were all of the returns that his office had received as of Monday. He said only a short stack had been delivered on Tuesday, and he expected only a small number to trickle in the rest of the week.
“We got maybe 20 ballots today,” he said Tuesday evening. “The next time we count ballots will be sometime Friday.”
Once the vote is final, it will be up to the county Board of Supervisors to decide whether it wants to have the county Public Works Department manage the basin under the supervision of supervisors or defer to the State Water Resources Control Board to manage the basin.
A new state law, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, requires that basins such as the Paso Robles basin that have been declared to be in critical overdraft must be sustainably managed by 2020, if not by local officials then by the state. The state declared the basin to be in overdraft because of precipitously falling aquifer levels in many parts of the sprawling 790-square-mile groundwater basin that covers much of the North County.
However, in late February, county supervisors told The Tribune that they are not interested in spending county general funds to manage the district. This opens the door for state water officials to step in and oversee the distressed aquifer.
In a related election, registered voters in the basin elected Sue Luft, Hilary Shirey Graves and Dean DiSandro to the proposed water district’s nine-member board of directors. Large landowners in the basin also elected Stephen Sinton and Dana Merrill to the board. Those elections are now moot, since the district won’t be formed.
The election for two seats in the medium-landowner category in the basin was uncontested. Farmers Randall Diffenbaugh and Bill Spencer would have filled those seats. Medium landowners are those who own between 40 and 399 acres in the basin.
Similarly, two seats in the small-landowner category on the board were not contested. Attorney Edwin J. Rambuski and business owner Chad Patten would have filled those seats. Small landowners are those who own less than 40 acres in the basin.
Shall a special parcel tax be levied to fund a local groundwater management district? (A two-thirds majority is required for passage. All registered voters in the basin received this ballot.)
Shall a Paso Robles Basin Water District be approved, subject to the passage of Measure A? (A majority vote is required for passage. All property owners in the basin received this ballot.)
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
The nine-member board of directors represents registered voters (3 seats), large-property owners (2 seats), medium-property owners (2 seats) and small-property owners (2 seats). The medium- and small-property owner seats were uncontested. These are the candidates for the contested seats:
– 3 seats: Represents registered voters in the district. Four candidates are running.
Hilary Shirey Graves
– 2 seats: Represents owners of 400 acres or more. Three candidates are running.
Top vote-getter: Stephen Sinton
Second: Dana M. Merrill
Third: Serena Friedman
Medium-landowner seats – 2 seats: Represents property owners of 40 to 399 acres. Uncontested.
– 2 seats: Represents property owners of less than 40 acres. Uncontested.
Edwin J. Rambuski
Chad E. Patten