Lawsuits filed against emergency ordinance on Paso Robles basin

Cindy Steinbeck addresses the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.
Cindy Steinbeck addresses the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Two lawsuits were filed in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court late Monday challenging a county emergency ordinance that limits pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The lawsuits could be the first step in putting the basin into adjudication, a lengthy and expensive process that puts the courts in charge of managing the basin.

One lawsuit, a writ of mandamus, asks the courts to overturn the emergency ordinance. The other is a complaint of quiet title that asks the court to affirm the right of overlying property owners to have access to the basin.

The writ of mandamus alleges that the emergency ordinance was not supported by sufficient evidence and that it failed to follow the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act. The quiet title claim seeks to reaffirm the right of overlying property owners to pump water from the basin and put it to a beneficial use.

Cindy Steinbeck of Steinbeck Vineyards and Winery is among the plaintiffs of the quiet title suit and filed both suits. She said the goal of the lawsuits is to protect groundwater rights.

“I’m convinced that fighting for my rights is the right thing to do, and I believe that as our seven-generation family stands up for our rights we are fighting for all other landowners in the Paso Robles groundwater basin as well,” she said.

Steinbeck also said that whether the basin goes into adjudication depends on whether the county fights the lawsuits.

The writ of mandamus was filed by a newly formed group called the Paso Robles Water Integrity Network. A news release describes them as a group of property owners and concerned citizens but the lawsuit does not list the members of the group.

The quiet title claim was filed by another new group called Protect Our Water Rights which is made up of about two dozen property owners in the basin, including many in the Steinbeck family as well as other vineyard owners.

The attorney handling the quiet title claim is Richard Zimmer of Bakersfield, who has been involved in adjudicating groundwater basins in Santa Maria and the Antelope Valley

County Counsel Rita Neal said her office is still reviewing the lawsuits and could not comment on their merit. She said she will advise the Board of Supervisors on how to respond to the suits.

At the weekly Board of Supervisors' meeting, supervisors Caren Ray and Bruce Gibson expressed great disappointment that the lawsuits were filed. Gibson described them as “a very discouraging step in the wrong direction.”

Supervisor Debbie Arnold said she attended a meeting at the Steinbeck Winery Monday evening where the lawsuits were discussed, one of many meetings she said she has attended as part of her research into the groundwater basin crisis. She said she has not read the lawsuits and could not comment on them other than to say that she is a believer in property rights.

Several groups that have been working to find a cooperative solution to the crisis in the groundwater basin were taken by surprise by the lawsuits. Sue Luft, president of Pro Water Equity, said the legal filings will not change her group’s approach, which is to remain committed to working toward a governance process for the basin.

“We have been working closely with PRAAGS (Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions), and we hope that we can have agreement on a structure that works for everyone,” she said.

Luft added that she had never heard of the groups until Monday, and that she knows little about them or on what basis they are pursuing legal action.

“It’s their right to do that if they choose, but the county was on good ground in approving that ordinance,” Luft said.

Jerry Reaugh, president of PRAAGS, also said his group was not aware of organizations.

“I think we were all taken by surprise,” he said.

However, Reaugh said that PRAAGS neither supports nor opposes what the new groups are doing. Moreover, his group, which has no involvement with the other groups, is on course with its work to create a California Water District. So far, PRAAGS has had three meetings with Pro Water Equity and another scheduled after the Thanksgiving holiday.

“We’ve been passing proposals back and forth, and we’ve been frank and honest about what our positions are,” Reaugh said. “The dialogue continues.”