In managing Paso water basin, the devil is in the details

By Cindy Steinbeck

The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions and PRO Water Equity (PRAAGS/ PWE) have stated that I have participated in a “smear campaign to deceive and confuse residents” with “deception and half-truths.” These accusations are false. As a citizen of this county and an overlying landowner I should be able to pose questions in public discussion, especially when the issues I pose and the questions I raise relate to creation of a quasi-governmental agency that will have the power to tax landowners and manage our water basin. Additionally, PRAAGS/PWE have an unusual and suspect cooperation with county government that continually oversteps legal boundaries regarding water and land use (i.e.: Urgency Ordinance). We as a community must be sure a special water district is what we want and need because once established, it will never go away.

The North County depends on the Paso Robles Groundwater Bain. Our basin, the second largest aquifer in the western United States, is enormous, containing 31.9 million acre feet of storage capacity. There is a regular flow of beautiful, clean water into the basin from the south and east as well as regular flow of water out of our basin to the north. Our basin water has never been co-mingled with an outside water source. Our water is valuable to everyone in North County and its value to those outside our area cannot be underestimated. I am concerned the drought, as well as a statewide lack of water, has caused fear and panic. The “details” of the proposed district are being lost in the confusion and haste … but the devil is in the details.

PRAAGS/PWE have stated that they intend to "manage" and "balance" the basin and that they do not intend to "sell local water." I believe a number of people reading this statement assume that the PWE/PRAAGS district is not seeking "export" powers. This is not true. Some of the "management powers" that PRAAGS/PWE may be able to use if they are successful in setting up their district include "export powers" and "water exchanges with private corporations."

Making a statement in the LAFCO application does not ensure that exports will not happen. As of a week ago the PRAAGS website stated that it intended to make "temporary exchanges of water." That statement is no longer on the website and members claim they’ve taken it off the table, but there is more to the story.

San Luis Obispo County Flood Control District insists on maintaining certain aspects of control and proposes a suspect relationship with the water district. Even though PRAAGS/PWE have taken "exchanges off the table" county Flood Control can put exchanges into AB3030 and force the district into “managing” AB3030. The legislative platform being discussed and implemented Feb. 11 states, "The proposed legislation not affect or limit the County or the Flood Control and Water Conservation District’s exercise of authority, currently or in the future, to manage groundwater in the Paso Robles Basin."

PRAAGS/PWE asserts that the "exchanges" will not result in our native groundwater leaving our basin. This is a semantics game that can be played because of the unregulated nature of the State Water Project. Unsuspecting landowners in unadjudicated basins (like the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin) are being targeted to become “exchange” centers for outside State Water Project contractor interests. I am very concerned for North County as a whole. Slowing down and properly educating overliers about the proposed district, as well as open discussion of county government actions, is necessary. Taxes and regulation are aspects of forming a quasi-governmental agency that must be carefully considered; exploitation of “exchange” opportunities by the water district or county government with an utterly bankrupt State Water Project must also be brought into the light so overliers can make informed decisions.

Exchanges are unregulated. Who will these exchanges be with and when will they be made? What exactly is the purpose of these exchanges? Who pays for the cost to make these exchanges happen and who profits? Will these exchanges be made with “wet” water or paper? How will exchanges benefit North County? "Water banking" in its broadest sense includes all contractual “transactions” involving water - exchanges, water transfers, and/or conjunctive use. Everyone needs to have an understanding of all types of water “transactions” prior to deciding whether or not we want a nine-member board being able to vote on "water transactions" with our Paso Robles Groundwater Basin water. Furthermore, overlying land owners need to understand the impacts of these “water transactions” on the health of the basin and on their overlying rights.

The intentions of the PRAAGS/PWE proposed district must be transparent; government agencies are required by law to be transparent in the public process. All individuals, entities or government agencies having a future financial interest in any form of "water transactions" involving the PRGWB MUST be made known to the public. We must make informed decisions regarding our basin.