Over the Hill

Paso Robles groundwater basin residents have a chance to control their future

Once in awhile, we can still find a spark of hope for local democracy. One such spark flashed recently for the people who live and farm on the Paso Robles groundwater basin. They will soon vote on forming a local district to govern their shrinking basin.

San Luis Obispo County supervisors decided last week to hold an election by mail, between Feb. 8 and March 8, on forming that district. I think calling that election was one of the board’s major achievements this year.

These days the trend seems to be for centralized headquarters somewhere else. We’ve centralized the control of schools through consolidation. We’ve centralized the control of businesses through mergers. We live in an age of “bigger must be better.” An outfit’s headquarters is always somewhere else.

I attended a one-room country school through seventh grade. The adults held a school meeting once a year with the help of the county superintendent of schools. They elected one of their neighbors to be the school trustee. He or she hired the teacher and the janitor and handled the school’s business for that year.

So county supervisors seemed to be going back to the old ways this year by getting the basin district planned and then bringing that plan before the basin’s voters for approval.

The Paso Robles groundwater basin has been shrinking for many years because we continue to pump more water out of it than our rains can replace. We don’t have the power to increase our rainfall, so we must do the next best thing, which is to limit our pumping in a fair and equitable way.

And now the residents and property owners of the groundwater basin are being offered a chance to manage their own basin. They would manage it by electing a local nine-member board of directors. It would be like electing a local school board.

Fortunately, two contending groups of basin property owners agreed on a compromise plan that makes the board election more acceptable.

Under that plan all voters must live in the district or own property in it. Owners of fewer than 40 acres will elect two board members. Owners of 40 to 400 acres will elect two board members. Owners of 400 or more acres will elect two. And all the district’s registered voters will jointly elect three.

The voters also will be asked to officially authorize the forming of the district and to authorize the taxes for it. Forming the district just needs a simple majority, but authorizing the taxes requires two-thirds of the votes. That will be harder.

But approving the district means local control. Rejecting the district means the state or county will step in and manage the basin.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.