North County landowners want their own water districts. But the clock is ticking.

Dana Merrill, standing next to one of the wells that irrigates his property, owns Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and is helping to form the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston water district in the North County. Landowners in the area can decide if they want to “opt in” and become part of the district, in order to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.
Dana Merrill, standing next to one of the wells that irrigates his property, owns Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and is helping to form the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston water district in the North County. Landowners in the area can decide if they want to “opt in” and become part of the district, in order to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Two groups of North County landowners are pioneering groundwater management in the Paso Robles basin, pursuing sustainability through self-governance.

Two regions east of Paso Robles in unincorporated San Luis Obispo County — Estrella-El Pomar-Creston and Shandon-San Juan — are in the midst of forming their own water districts, prompted largely by looming regulations from the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

The act, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law in 2014, requires the 577,349-acre Paso Robles sub-basin — and others in critical overdraft — to be managed sustainably by 2020. Groundwater sustainability agencies must develop plans to manage the basins’ water supply or face the wrath of the State Water Resources Control Board, which could intervene if resources aren’t maintained properly.

The land managed by the new districts would represent a third of the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

In 2016, the county attempted to form a water district that would have covered the unincorporated areas of the basin. But ballot measures needed to create and fund it failed in a March election, with only 22 percent of voters supporting the plan.

After the vote’s failure, while the county Board of Supervisors debated whether to oversee the basin or allow the state to manage it, a few landowners decided to take matters into their own hands. In order to guarantee themselves a voice in the basin’s management, the landowners began laying the groundwork for their own water districts, which will also serve as groundwater sustainability agencies.

The process is moving along quickly because the clock is ticking — agencies must be established by June 30 to properly comply with groundwater management act.


Forming a district

Landowners in the Shandon-San Juan area began gathering members for their district soon after the March ballot measure failed, said Willy Cunha, who helps manage Sunview Vineyards in Shandon and has been involved in the formation process.

The district began forming loosely between Whitley Gardens and the basin’s eastern boundary, with members choosing to opt in by signing petitions.

“Because it wasn’t forced on them, it wasn’t bureaucracy,” Cunha said.

The Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district started gaining steam in July, after landowners took note of Shandon-San Juan’s idea.

Dana Merrill, the chairman of the formation committee, owns Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and about 400 acres in the area. He said the district has boundaries that stretch roughly from Whitley Gardens west to Paso Robles and up and around the city to the northwest.

Merrill said the water district movement “came out of the ashes” of the 2016 ballot measure.

“We saw them start the effort,” he said. “The rest of us thought, ‘Maybe we could do something like that on the west side of the basin.’ 

In order to become districts, the groups have to collect petitions and present them to the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission. Once the commission approves a district, members hold votes to officially create it and pay for it.

The commission approved the Shandon-San Juan district in October. Those who’ve opted in to the district are preparing to vote on its creation, and membership is closed. The Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district is still accepting petitions and going through preliminary meetings.

Funding for the districts would be assessed based on the amount of irrigated agricultural land, nonirrigated agricultural land, and residential and commercial operations maintained by landowners.

Those with irrigated land who’ve opted in to the Shandon-San Juan district could pay a maximum of $35 per irrigated acre, those with nonirrigated land would pay up to 59 cents per acre, and residential and commercial water users would pay a flat rate of up to $7.50. The formula in Estrella-El Pomar-Creston will likely be similar.

Under this funding mechanism, landowners who use more water would pay the most for the district.

“The money comes from the irrigated guys,” Merrill said.

What about everyone else?

The new districts likely will include only a fraction of landowners in the basin — Shandon-San Juan comprises 66 landowners and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston is made up of 190.

Because the districts are purely opt-in, a landowner who’s part of the district may be neighbors with someone who decided not to join. This gives the districts a patchwork appearance when viewed on a map.

Shandon-San Juan looks more cohesive because it has a smaller number of larger parcels, with an average size of 306 acres, while Estrella-El Pomar-Creston has a larger number of smaller parcels, with an average size of 77 acres.

Courtney Howard, county public works water resources division manager, said the department was preparing to send 5,000 fliers to all basin landowners for an upcoming information session.

But the districts would include a sizable chunk of the basin. Shandon-San Juan would provide oversight to 144,000 acres, about 25 percent of the basin. Estrella-El Pomar-Creston would oversee 45,000 acres, about 8 percent of the basin. Together, the two districts would cover about 33 percent of the water source.

As for the remainder, North County Supervisors Debbie Arnold and John Peschong said they’re committed to the county serving as the groundwater sustainability agency for the unincorporated areas that aren’t part of a district.

“I believe the county can manage those parts of the county that are not in a water district,” Peschong said.

Arnold, who opposed the formation of a North County water district in 2016, said she fears landowners are getting scared into joining the new districts because they’ve been told state management would be the only alternative.

“I think what a lot of property owners are being told is, ‘You don’t have a water district,’ ” she said. “That’s simply not true.”

Soon after the failure of the March 2016 vote, Arnold and Supervisor Lynn Compton said they were in favor of county basin management, while Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson said they would rather leave the unincorporated areas to the state.

At a Nov. 1 meeting, held prior to Peschong’s election, the supervisors clarified their position and said the county would serve as the groundwater agency for unincorporated areas. But county funding for Sustainable Groundwater Management Act compliance is still up in the air.

Former Supervisor Frank Mecham said at the meeting that he wanted each region of the county to pay for their own compliance: “Everyone’s going to have to participate and pay their fair share.”

But Arnold and Peschong said they don’t think crafting a sustainability plan should cost taxpayers any more than they’re already paying.

“In the past, it’s been part of the service the county provides,” Arnold said. “We acknowledge state mandates are part of being a county these days.”

Basin self-governance

Even so, Merrill and Cunha said they’re pursuing their own districts in order to represent their areas’ interests as the management act process unfolds.

“It doesn’t save anyone from making hard decisions,” Cunha said. “It just gets you in the room. It gets you a voice.”

Merrill said the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district is attempting to join together agricultural landowners to collaboratively develop better basin management practices.

He acknowledged the basin needs to be better managed and said the district could find ways to do so by bringing people together.

“We don’t want to just mail a check to the state or a check to the county,” he said.

Although it’s unclear how the county’s management act funding will line up against the new districts’ budgets, the landowners see the groups as a way to deal directly with all the other parties involved.

“It’s just an issue we’ve got to deal with,” Merrill said. “This is the best way to do it.”

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27