Group of Paso Robles basin landowners get the go-ahead to form groundwater district

Dana Merrill owns Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and is helping to form the El Pomar-Estrella-Creston water district in the North County.
Dana Merrill owns Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and is helping to form the El Pomar-Estrella-Creston water district in the North County. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A group of North County landowners who want to manage their own water took a big step Thursday toward forming a district for part of the Paso Robles groundwater basin — despite claims they would export water and that this would create too many local agencies.

The San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission voted 5-2 to allow 168 owners of about 38,000 acres east of Paso Robles to form the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston water district.

The decision came after landowners in the area spent about a year drafting plans for their own district in order to comply with the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and to develop their own solutions to water shortages that the agricultural community is facing.

SGMA, passed in 2014, states that groundwater basins in critical overdraft must be overseen by groundwater sustainability agencies — or GSAs, which are required to develop management plans by 2020 — or face state intervention. The county is home to five basins in critical overdraft — Paso Robles, Los Osos Valley, San Luis Obispo/Edna Valley, Cuyama Valley and Santa Maria.

The water district’s approval was called into question Tuesday after the county Board of Supervisors voted to manage the basins’ “fringe areas,” or unincorporated sections not included in planned GSAs — a move that will cost taxpayers about $6.1 million to $8.6 million. The money will come out of the county’s General Fund.

But commissioners chose to support local groundwater control by landowners willing to put up their own money.

“We can’t afford to lose this opportunity,” said Commissioner Tom Murray, a public member of LAFCO.

A groundwater management vacuum

The Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district developed after a campaign to create a groundwater district over the entire Paso Robles basin failed in March 2016.

In the wake of the vote, the county Board of Supervisors initially considered allowing the state to manage that basin’s fringe areas. In November, supervisors said the county would serve as the GSA, but only if landowners agreed to pay for management, a policy that remained in place until Tuesday.

In the midst of the GSA vacuum that opened up after the 2016 vote, two groups of agricultural landowners in the Paso Robles basin moved to form their own water districts — Shandon-San Juan, which LAFCO approved in October, and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston. Together, the two districts would oversee more than 150,000 acres and about one-third of the basin.

The city of Paso Robles, the San Miguel Community Services District and the Heritage Ranch Community Services District all opted to form GSAs to manage the remaining chunks of the basin.

The districts are entirely opt-in, creating a kind of checkerboard situation in which two neighbors’ water could be managed by different entities.

Funding for the districts would come from special taxes. Irrigated agricultural landowners would pay up to $35 per acre, nonirrigated landowners would pay up to 59 cents per acre and residential owners would pay a flat rate up to $7.50 per acre.

As of Thursday, the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district would be comprised of 15,628 acres of irrigated land, 21,745 acres of nonirrigated land and 200 residences. Its maximum annual tax assessment would total about $561,309 per year.

An agricultural water district

The LAFCO meeting drew dozens of speakers, some who supported the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district’s model of local control and others who painted it as a ploy by Big Agriculture to export or bank water.

Dana Merrill, chairman of the district formation committee, said the landowners involved want to create an agricultural water district and be a “responsible partner” in developing sustainable groundwater management strategies.

“We believe we can relate to our farmers,” he said.

Merrill, who owns Pomar Junction Vineyard & Winery and about 400 acres in the area, said the district could bring farmers together to develop resource-use strategies, such as irrigating with water from Paso Robles’ planned recycled water plant.

“The cheapest water you’re ever going to get is the water you save,” he said.

He also didn’t mince words when talking about how important vineyards are to North County cities.

“A large part of their success is the burgeoning wine industry,” he said. “Water drives that.”

Al Webster, who farms and ranches 100 acres near Creston, said he wanted to join the district because of “cost and representation.” He said he’s not in favor of the county or the state serving as his GSA.

“Water is too important to be left in the hands of politicians,” he said.

But Dan Wunsch, who has an 11-acre horse ranch near Creston, said the landowners behind the district want to “move water” and are trying to “divide and conquer” after the 2016 district didn’t pan out.

Ultimately, the majority of commissioners threw their support behind the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district.

“We need a long-term solution for the water situation in this county,” said Commissioner Ed Waage, mayor of Pismo Beach.

But county Supervisor Debbie Arnold and Atascadero Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi — the two North County representatives on the LAFCO board — voted against the district’s formation.

Arnold and Fonzi both said they didn’t like the basin’s disconnected, checkerboard-like boundaries. Arnold also pointed out how badly the previously proposed district had failed — only 22 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of its formation.

Fonzi said she’s concerned about smaller landowners getting lost in the shuffle and thinks the county could manage that area of the basin.

“I struggle with an extra layer of government,” she said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27