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Supervisors make tough decision to pass on Paso water district to Katcho 

The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers were a bit chaotic the last two Tuesdays, so much so that a key decision in the process to form a water district over the stressed Paso Robles Groundwater Basin barely made it out alive.

The supervisors approved on Feb. 18 a legislative platform policy statement for the Paso Robles Basin Water District, a body that would manage the sourcing of supplemental water and use of groundwater. The legislative platform, which passed by a 3-2 majority—with supervisors Debbie Arnold and Caren Ray dissenting—is required before the application and approval process can begin for the proposed district. That’s because the hoped-for management structure is different from the usual “off the shelf” district models available for use in the California Water Code. The State Assembly must approve the proposed district, which would then come back to the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for formal review before the district will even be up for a vote by people within its boundaries.

In an already saturated saga, where declining groundwater levels in the sprawling basin have sparked everything from complex technical studies to widespread panic, the latest approval stemmed from an agreement by two groups that were previously at each other’s throats: PRAAGS, short for Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, largely comprised of viticulturists; and the rural residential group PRO Water Equity. The two groups had different views of the problem, as well as two different visions of how to manage it.

After the supervisors approved an urgency ordinance to put a moratorium on new wells and increased groundwater pumping—a move that received tenuous support from stakeholders—1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham facilitated discussions between the groups, which eventually led to the agreement now on the table.

During that time, another group formed: Protect Our Water Rights (POWR), led by Cindy Steinbeck of Steinbeck Family Vineyards and Winery. That group filed a quiet title lawsuit asserting overlier rights—the first lawsuit filed in a process throughout which discussion makers have been keen on avoiding legal action. Steinbeck, who was one of a few dissenters when it came to the urgency ordinance, has become increasingly vocal in raising concerns for an avenue that could mean stripped water rights for overliers and the possibility for local or outside interests to use the basin to bank water for future wheeling and dealing.

Meanwhile, the PRAAGS-PRO Water Equity proposal has been on tour at public info sessions around the North County, where the groups underscored that there are no plans to bank water, only an intention for concrete steps to solving the problem of a dwindling water supply. Accusations have been flying, with PRAAGS, PRO Water Equity, and POWR all releasing statements on a weekly basis.

Amid this all, local land-use watchdog groups North County Watch and the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club formed an unlikely alliance, and former supporters of PRO Water Equity have grown increasingly wary of the proposed district, saying it would unfairly be weighted toward large landowners.

“I sympathize with your desire to get this ‘hot potato’ off your plate right away. And isn’t it convenient that two private groups have presented you with this option?” Kathy Sweet said at the Feb. 18 meeting, reading a letter submitted by Della Barrett. “But you weren’t elected to just passively pass along private party requests to the Legislature.”

In the lead up to the meeting, the proposed district received endorsements from the Blue Ribbon Committee, a group of stakeholders advising the county; the county’s Water Resource Advisory Committee; and The Tribune. The legislative platform is now in Assemblymember Katcho Achadjian’s court, and he’s previously said that he’d take direction from the county and then move forward. While initially hoping for a consensus, Achadjian said he would still move forward with the bill.

“While their decision was not unanimous, the locally-elected Board of Supervisors has decided on what they believe is the best course for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin,” Achadjian said in a statement to New Times. “As this process moves forward, I encourage local stakeholders to continue to talk and try to work through their differences.”

If sentiments expressed by 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill are any indication, the tough decisions aren’t going anywhere.

“We have reached a point where—as often seen in this county—compromise is a dirty word to people on any extreme,” Hill said before announcing his support. “I think letting perfection being the enemy of the good is a recipe for nothing and throwing our hands up, but that is not something that we're hired to do.”

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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