Shandon-San Juan residents vote to form a Paso Robles groundwater basin district

An electric-powered well near Highway 41 near Shandon services a vineyard.
An electric-powered well near Highway 41 near Shandon services a vineyard. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Shandon-San Juan residents voted Tuesday to create the first water district in the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin made up entirely of landowners seeking a voice in developing sustainable water management strategies to prevent overpumping.

Sixty-eight landowners were eligible to participate in the vote-by-mail special election, and 59 cast ballots — unanimously voting in favor of creating the district, according to unofficial results from the San Luis Obispo County Clerk-Recorder’s Office.

Five candidates also ran for five seats on the water district’s board. Willy Cunha, Marshall T. Miller, Kevin A. Peck, Steven J. Sinton and Matt Turrentine were all elected.

The opt-in district covers 136,328 acres and is one of two formed by agricultural landowners in the Paso Robles basin in anticipation of the state Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, taking effect this summer.

The law, passed in 2014, requires all groundwater basins in critical overdraft, including the Paso Robles basin, to establish groundwater sustainability agencies, or GSAs, by June 30 and then to have management plans in place by 2020 that will prevent the aquifer from being depleted.

Landowners in Shandon-San Juan and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston decided to form their own agriculture-based districts and GSAs after a campaign to form a basin-wide water district failed in March 2016. Those who wanted to opt in to the districts signed petitions or sent letters to the San Luis Obispo Local Agency Formation Commission.

LAFCO approved the Shandon-San Juan district in October and the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district on Thursday.

Both districts must work together with other GSAs in the basin — the city of Paso Robles, the San Miguel Community Services District, the Heritage Ranch Community Services District and San Luis Obispo and Monterey counties are the other agencies involved — to develop a sustainable management plan.

Tommy Gong, the county clerk-recorder, said 62 ballots have actually been accounted for — one voter sent a ballot to the North County clerk-recorder’s office by mistake, and two failed to sign their ballots, so they haven’t yet been counted.

The remaining six ballots could still be counted as long as they were postmarked by Wednesday and arrive by Friday, Gong said. The results will be finalized April 19, after the voters who submitted the unsigned ballots have a chance to sign them.

The county Board of Supervisors on April 4 voted to manage portions of groundwater basins around the county not already represented by a GSA, but Shandon-San Juan and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston district members said they want local representation and a voice in the SGMA process.

Willy Cunha, who helps manage Sunview Vineyards in Shandon and has been involved in the Shandon-San Juan district’s formation process, said the outcome of the vote wasn’t a surprise. He said the county’s recent decision frustrated some members who decided to take part in the district, “but then they wrapped their head around why they were doing this in the first place.”

Cunha said the district’s board plans to meet for the first time May 23 in Shandon to discuss bylaws and officially vote to become a GSA. Next steps include signing a memorandum of agreement with the other GSAs in the basin and scheduling a vote to fund the district with a special tax.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27