The future of the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin will soon be shaped by residents and property owners in a crucial series of ballot measures that will arrive in their mailboxes next month.
At stake is the ability of rural residents to stay in their homes and for North County’s economically vital wine industry to sustain itself.
Hundreds of rural homeowners dependent on wells for their water have watched levels in those wells drop precipitously. Irrigated agriculture, which uses nearly 70 percent of the groundwater pumped out of the basin, also is threatened. Eighty percent of irrigated agriculture in the basin consists of wine grapes.
On Feb. 8, county election officials will send out ballots to voters and property owners, who will decide whether to form a Paso Robles groundwater management district. As proposed, the district would have sweeping powers to tax and regulate property in the sprawling 790-square-mile water basin that covers much of the North County.
“I think water is the most important issue facing us as rural residents,” said Chad Patten of Paso Robles, who is running for a seat on the proposed water district’s board of directors.
If formed, the district would have the power to meter wells to measure use, levy charges on that use and set usage limits. It would also have the ability to obtain supplemental water such as recycled water from Paso Robles, the Nacimiento pipeline and water from the State Water Project pipeline. The district would be specifically prohibited from exporting water outside the basin.
What will be voted on in the election
The election will consist of three separate ballots that must be returned by March 8.
In Measure A, approximately 6,000 registered voters in the basin will decide whether to establish a parcel tax that would generate the nearly $1 million a year needed to manage the basin. Two-thirds of the returned ballots must be in favor of the tax for it to be established. The majority of property owners would pay $37.50 or less a year, but property with irrigated agriculture could easily pay more than $1,000 per year.
“Getting two-thirds of the vote is going to be a heavy lift,” said Bob Brown, owner of Pretty Penny Vineyard in Paso Robles, who is in favor of forming the district.
In Measure B, the estimated 4,832 landowners within the district will decide whether to form the district. A majority of the returned ballots must be in favor for the district to be formed.
In order for the district to be formed, both Measure A and Measure B must pass.
On the third ballot, voters and landowners will choose the water district’s board of directors. Nine seats on the board are up for grabs — three chosen by voters, two chosen by large landowners of 400 or more acres, two chosen by medium landowners of 40 to 399 acres and two chosen by small landowners with less than 40 acres.
Of those four categories, only two are contested, meaning there are more candidates than there are seats on the board. The large landowner and registered voter seats are contested.
A crisis decades in the making
The crisis in the basin that led to a proposed groundwater management district was decades in the making. Groundwater wells have pumped more water out of the basin than nature can replenish through rainfall and natural percolation. Four years of extreme drought exacerbated the overpumping problem.
“Over the past four years, we have gotten two years’ worth of rain,” said Wade Horton, county public works director.
Although the county is experiencing a wet winter this year because of an El Niño weather pattern, it will not be enough to recharge the basin.
“It will take multiple wet years to begin recharging the basin,” said John Diodati, county public works administrator.
A recent hydrological study of the basin calculated that the basin was overpumped by an estimated 2,473 acre-feet per year from 1981 through 2011. As a result, water levels in the basin dropped 80 to 100 feet or more in some areas, and those levels are expected to drop an additional 70 feet by 2040.
Hardest hit is the Estrella area, a 12-mile-wide-by-15-mile-long swath of land east of Paso Robles. County hydrological data show that water levels in that area of the basin have dropped by 120 feet since 1981.
Ed Redig is a retired State Parks employee and lives in the Estrella area on Blue Oak Lane off Geneseo Road. His story is typical.
He built his house there in 1994 and drilled a 400-foot-deep well. By 2007, he had lost 100 feet of water in his well.
A year ago, his well went dry, and he had to drill a new 700-foot-deep well. That cost him $30,000.
“That was a big hit for a retired guy who is just trying to get by,” he said. “Dozens of people in this area have had to drill new wells.”
Special legislation led to this vote
The situation prompted several groups of residents and vintners to try to form a water management district for the basin. However, some feared that a standard water district would be dominated by a handful of large property owners in the basin.
In an effort to avoid that, the groups proposed a district with a hybrid board of directors that would be a mix of large, medium and small landowners and registered voters, thereby avoiding any one group being able to dominate the district and its decision-making.
At the request of area residents, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, introduced AB 2453 in 2014, legislation that would allow a water district to be formed with the hybrid board of directors elected by voters and property owners.
“Over 300 wells went dry in a five-month period this year. Therefore, the need for this legislation is immense,” Achadjian said in 2014.
The proposal to form the district has deeply divided the community. Proponents argue that the basin is in crisis and a locally managed district will ensure fair allocation of water. Opponents argue that the district would duplicate management activities already being done by the county and add another wasteful and expensive layer of bureaucracy.
As Achadjian’s bill wended its way through the state Legislature, language was added that outlined the powers the water district would have. These include the power to meter, monitor and manage the basin, including the authority to levy extraction charges.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014 and took effect in 2015, leading to the current election.
“I think that voting to form the district will be the easy thing to do, but actually managing it will be the hard thing to do,” said Edwin Rambuski, a Templeton attorney and farmer who is running for a seat on the district’s board of directors.
Law requires a plan
Another new state law is also having a profound impact on the effort to form a management district for the Paso Robles basin — the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That law requires that basins in critical overdraft, including the Paso Robles basin, have sustainable groundwater management plans in place by 2020. The Paso Robles basin is one of 21 such critically overdrafted basins in California, according to state water officials.
If the water district is not formed, the county Board of Supervisors, sitting as the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District, could have the county public works department manage the basin. If the county doesn’t manage the basin, the state will step in.
The law gives the State Water Resources Control Board the authority to intervene if local governments don’t act to stabilize a basin that is in overdraft. State intervention would require well meters at landowner expense to verify usage volume and compliance with pumping restrictions. Those fees would be charged without voter approval by landowners or residents.
“Groundwater users in overdrafted basins must work together to manage the basin sustainably, or state intervention will bring the basin into a sustainable condition until such time as basin water users can themselves sustainably manage the basin for this and future generations,” wrote the State Water Board’s Executive Director Thomas Howard in a letter to San Luis Obispo County.
What will be decided
Mail-in ballots will be sent to registered voters and property owners in the Paso Robles groundwater basin Feb. 8 to be returned by March 8.
Measure A: Whether to establish a parcel tax to generate nearly $1 million a year to manage the basin. All registered voters in the basin will receive this ballot. A two-thirds majority is required for passage.
Measure B: Whether to form the Paso Robles groundwater management district. All property owners in the basin will receive this ballot. A majority vote is required for passage.
District board of directors: Election of the nine-member board of directors. Three seats will be chosen by registered voters, two seats will be chosen by large landowners with 400 or more acres, two seats will be chosen by medium landowners with 40 to 399 acres, and two seats will be chosen by small landowners with less than 40 acres.