When it comes to Paso Robles water basin, it’s deja vu all over again

In its editorial of March 7, The Tribune Editorial Board rebuked the Board of Supervisors for its 3-2 decision to reject a proposal to create a Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District in North County, asserting that was a power grab by the county to retain control over North County’s water and, in the process, usurp “local control” by “a group of North County landowners” (their words, not mine). In that attack, The Tribune could not have been more wrong.

The editorial board acknowledges the motivation for rejection was a fear that the individuals behind the proposed district would “have too much control in the collaborative process of developing a state-mandated groundwater management plan.” This is a legitimate concern. The supervisors were doing exactly the job they were elected to do — to protect the interests of all, not just the monied few.

There is a distinction between “local control” of our water and “local domination” by a few. The proposed district was merely an attempt to do an end run around the will of the voters, which was clearly expressed in a vote just two years ago, when over 75 percent of the citizens soundly rejected a proposal by many of the same “big ag” individuals and corporations to create a water district.

In that first effort, voting rights and absolute control of the surface and sub-surface waters would have been determined by votes by acreage. Had that passed, when any issue arose regarding the use, allocation and costs of water, a 5,000-acre vineyard would have had 5,000 “votes,” whereas the residential or the small business owner would have only one, and the small farmer or rancher perhaps 20 to 40. End result? Water dominated by those people/businesses that use most of the county’s water, without checks or balances. The majority of citizens could never win a vote. That is what “water domination” looks like, as opposed to “local control” — a “fox guarding the henhouse.”

This recent “Plan B” of the Estrella-EL Pomar-Creston Water District has been likewise rejected by the majority of supervisors. You may ask why. The answer is simple. Once again, this was nothing more than another attempt by a few individuals/businesses to totally control our basin’s water, to the exclusion of the rest of us. The “new scheme” was simply to adjust the old proposal to create not one, but several small districts and gerrymander the district lines, so that, again, the proponents would have total control of each, leaving no voice for the rest of us — no say in water allocations, priorities, usage limits, infrastructure, fair use and/or costs. We were told simply “trust us.”

When judging whether The Tribune’s editorial was fair in criticizing the Board of Supervisors, consider the following:

1. In the vote taken in 2016, over 75 percent of the voters were against the formation of a district independent of the county because the district proposed would not fairly protect all residents.

2. In the recent scheme, the “members” parcels in the proposed Estrella-El-Pomar-Creston District were dispersed and non-contiguous (e.g., gerrymandered) to the point that water votes would, again, be controlled by the few and not representative of the interests of the rest of us, by far the majority.

3. 50 percent of the proposed landowner “members” of the district do not live over the Paso Robles Basin. Many are corporations and have no residents on their properties, so likely have no concern for the impact their pumping will have on the lives of those who actually live here and, typically, have shallower wells and far lower water consumption.

4. Allowing, as was proposed, the Estrella-El-Pomar-Creston District a voting block of 29 percent would have essentially disenfranchised the majority “non-member” landowners.

5. Had the district been approved, it would have meant that future decisions made by it would have been based on the value of the properties, as determined by a company of their exclusive choosing. This, too, would have diminished the voices of the majority.

6. The proposal to give a 29 percent vote to the district, based on water usage, was nonsensical. The majority “non-members” have far more, shallower wells and historically bear the brunt of over pumping of the Paso Basin. They have been far better about conservation measures than properties with deep wells like those represented by the proposed district. Many of the properties in the Estrella-El-Pomar-Creston District have actually increased their water usage in anticipation of future restrictions.

7. Common sense indicates the interests of all landowners should remain under the “local control” of the county, at least until an equitable plan, fair to all, with equal representation, is framed and agreed to by the voters.

Contrary to The Tribune Editorial Board’s criticism of the rejection of the Estrella-El-Pomar-Creston District by the majority of the county supervisors, kudos to them for their decision. They did their job properly and thoughtfully and protected all of us and our water resources.

Don Wilson is a retired litigation attorney who lives in Creston.

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