Ronald Reagan allegedly stated that the most terrifying words one could hear were, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” OK, he was probably smiling when he said it, but usually statements like that come with a modicum of truth.
I had a sense of Reagan’s meaning during the July 26 county Planning Commission meeting dealing with the current Paso Robles groundwater basin problem. If you think the problem relates only to the city of Paso Robles, think again. The basin encompasses an area of almost 800 square miles of North County. It runs from well into Monterey County, south to Atascadero, west to Highway 101 and east to Shandon.
If you are wondering why you haven’t heard about this, there just wasn’t much said about it. Oh, there were many meetings over the years, many studies, and blue-ribbon this and that, but Joe Public didn’t get a whole lot of info sent his way. I am talking newspaper, television and radio coverage. A 108-page Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Management Plan was published in March of 2011 for those willing to go to the library and wade through the thing. I did manage to do just that and found myself with a headache and not much else.
To begin, when an average person takes into consideration the fact that Paso Robles has experienced a 22 percent growth in population between 2000 and 2010, and add to that the exponential growth in vineyard planting during the same time, one can fairly safely surmise that if there is a problem with basin overdraft, it might just have something to do with those two dynamics. We can study the thing to death, but the fact is, someone — or a number of people — was asleep on watch.
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Aquifers are not bottomless pits, nor are they easy things to study or plot. What can be measured is the depth from which our water emanates in specific areas. For some time, we’ve been told that we are using more than nature can replace. Our leaders have spent well over a decade now studying and analyzing, but other than a weak effort at voluntary conservation, they have produced nothing that suggests that we are facing the problem realistically.
We now come to government on its white horse galloping to the rescue. The Planning Commission sat to consider an ordinance put together as a result of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Management Plan. Try to envision a Don Quixote type of entrance. In that water rights are pretty much in violate, the county realized that it had very little it could do. The proverbial windmill was replaced with a cardboard image of Mr. and Mrs. Ordinary Rural Family. In the words of a June 2011 “newsletter” from SLO Planning, “... The County could preclude the creation of new lots.” If you had envisioned cleaving off a fiveacre spot for your son or daughter, forget it.
One of the speakers at the July 26 hearing commented on the fact that this ordinance was messing with property rights. A Mr. James Caruso, a senior planner who was the fact and figures man for the commissioners, laid the man’s argument low when he said that there is nothing in the Constitution dealing with property rights. In fact, lot splits or subdivisions were a privilege, not a right. There is a lot in that statement that is implied but not stated.
We, the government, decide what is good for you and what you can do with your property. The busi ness of “pursuit of happiness” in the Constitution is something else entirely. In fact, our planners and Board of Supervisors have taken this “control factor” to Orwellian levels. The county decides what trees you plant, what color your house will be and where you situate you home.
Finally, there is something particularly egregious about all these powers of the county coming together to deal with a problem that is so obvious in its root cause, yet they focus on a miniscule element. Overbuilding in Paso Robles and endless thousands of acres of grapes have put us in this predicament. With thousands of acres still in the offing, and the agricultural community using nearly 80 percent of the water, we need Quixote to retire and someone more grounded in what is really going on to deal with this.
This fall, the Board of Supervisors will decide the fate of this ordinance. If you have any concern for your basic right to do with your property what is reasonable and lawful, make it a point to either let your concerns be known by letter or attend the meeting and voice them.
Dick Rogers is a retired Los Angeles homicide detective who moved to rural Templeton and operated an organic farm for 15 years. He and his wife now run a bed and breakfast.