Ground rules on Paso Robles groundwater basin shouldn’t have been changed

The Board of Super visors did a surprising about-face Tuesday when it decided, by a 3-2 vote, that formation of a management district for the depleted Paso Robles groundwater basin should be decided on the basis of one vote per property owner.

Up to that point, the vote was to have been “weighted,” which would have given owners of the largest parcels more say.

We don’t disagree with the idea of allowing each landowner one vote. That would alleviate fears that the largest landowners would dominate voting in such a way that it would disenfranchise the smaller owners.

Sue Harvey, who has opposed governance by “weighted” vote, believes this is a step in the right direction for another reason as well: As she sees it, passage of the formation vote will no longer be a slam-dunk, and that will force proponents of the district to come up with a solid management proposal to present to voters.

Again, we don’t disagree. But couldn’t that have been decided earlier in the process?

The Board of Supervisors already had given its blessing to a bill authorizing formation of the district. On that basis, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian introduced the legislation, which went on to be approved by the state Assembly and is now awaiting Senate review.

But now that the Board of Supervisors has asked the Legislature to change the ground rules, it raises a slew of additional questions.

For starters, what, exactly, is a landowner? The state water code defines a landowner as a holder of title to land. So if there are multiple title holders, does each get a vote? If so, that raises more questions about equity. Consider: If 10 people hold title to a 50-acre parcel, should they have 10 votes among them, while a single owner of a 500-acre parcel has just one vote? We don’ believe so.

Another concern: This latest proposal won’t necessarily satisfy demands of those pressing for one person/one vote, since this will be one landowner/one vote.

We wonder, in trying to placate everyone (or at least, in the case of Super visor Frank Mecham, trying to placate the county Farm Bureau and Cattlemen’s Association) has the board only succeeded in pleasing no one?

We hope not, because we still believe that (1) a management district is critical to saving the basin and (2) the hybrid board — which includes directors elected by property owners and by registered voters — is the best way to ensure equitable representation.

It gives registered voters of the district — whether or not they own property — a say in electing three members of the board.

It also gives landowners, including those who own property but do not live in the district, the opportunity to select representatives.

Remember, too, that this hybrid form of representation was a compromise reached by two of the groups most affected by the dwindling supplies in the basin: the large landowners on the one hand, and the small farmers and homeowners on the other.

Since the compromise was announced, several organizations and individuals have taken issue with the proposal.

Some are asking the Board of Supervisors to manage the basin, under the auspices of the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District.

That’s an option that may become necessary. But because landowners in the district will be footing the bill for any basin recovery projects, we believe local control through a water management district is the more equitable and sensible approach, and it deserves a chance.

We only hope that it can come to a vote before the health of the Paso Robles groundwater basin deteriorates further.