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Two lawsuits and an agreement complicate the stabilization of the declining Paso Robles Groundwater Basin 

Two lawsuits and one slowly braided agreement have come to the forefront of the unfolding story about the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin and the future of those whose livelihoods rest above it.

The condition of the basin and the many paths toward addressing a looming crisis took a front row seat at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors chambers in 2013, with the passing of an urgency ordinance that bans new and increased groundwater use, as well as the beginnings of a management plan to level out supply and demand. Meanwhile, longer-term goals are also being sorted out, such as questions of management, supplemental water, and blame.

Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) had first pitched the idea of forming a California Water District that would oversee the acquisition of supplemental water. Critical that PRAAGS would favor large landowners and large water users, a group of rural residents, PRO Water Equity, pitched their own version. After a few months of negotiation encouraged by 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham, the two groups found middle ground in early December and presented a joint plan.

“It’s become very apparent to everybody that we need to have some sort of management structure in the basin,” Jerry Reaugh, president of PRAAGS and owner of Serano Vista Vineyard, told New Times. “It’s to everyone’s best interest [that] we have a management structure in place so when the urgency ordinance expires, there’s someone to take the baton so to speak, and say, ‘This is how we’re going to manage water in the North County.’”

The possibility of a one-vote-per-acre electoral process—typical to the California Water District model—was PRO Water Equity’s primary concern; that group instead pushed for a one-vote-per-person format. These ideas were sorted out in an agreement—which proposes a seven-member board, with two directors elected by large landowners and two elected by small- to medium-sized land owners—both decided by yet-to-be-determined acreage classifications. Residents within the district will elect the other three directors.

Creston resident Maria Lorca, who recently resigned from her position as a vice president of PRO Water Equity over the agreement, still says that isn’t a fair mix.

“I don’t believe it will give a fair voice to the individual residents in the basin,” Lorca told New Times. “I think it will cede control of the district [board of] directors, and therefore the resource.”

Lorca, and North County Watch President Susan Harvey, who also resigned from a PRO Water Equity committee, are holding tight to the position that a district board should be elected through a one-vote-per-person election, PRO Water Equity’s original position. That would keep district control more even-keel, they say, rather than falling in the hands of a potential 4-3 majority. Lorca and Harvey contend that any voting on funds and taxes within the district through Proposition 218, in which votes are doled out based on benefit, would give sway to large landowners.

With four seats based on land holdings and three decided by residents, exactly how the seven-member board may rock to one side or another remains unclear. Reaugh and PRO Water Equity President Sue Luft say it can be leveled out with the help of public input as the proposal goes through an approval process with the Local Agency Formation Commission.

There still may be the opportunity, however, for overliers with qualms over a proposed district to air their concerns. To form a management district that holds the power to regulate groundwater use—listed as a key component to stabilize the basin—special legislation has to be approved by the state Legislature. While Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian would potentially introduce such a bill, he would wait to take direction from the supervisors, said Vicki Janssen, district director at Achadjian’s San Luis Obispo office.

Mecham, who’s met with Achadjian on the topic, said the board would consider the issue, take public comment, and decide what to pass up to the Assembly. Mecham told New Times that the county’s lobbyist already has a placeholder in Sacramento to advocate on a future bill’s behalf.

Rural residents aren’t the only group with mixed feelings about the proposed district. Some agriculturalists have expressed concerns of more bureaucracy and a threat to private property rights and the associated overlier rights. Two newly formed groups filed legal action to challenge both the urgency ordinance and the course of a water district. Paso Robles Water Integrity Network filed a writ challenging the urgency ordinance, claiming that county supervisors overstepped their legal authority in regulating water use, which is generally governed by the state. The group also claims that the California Environmental Quality Act was violated because there was no environmental review. The urgency ordinance was passed with a four-vote majority on grounds that urgent action was needed, allowing the circumvention of such review.

Another new group called Protect Our Water Rights (POWR) carried out the second legal action with a series of quiet title claims by nine plaintiffs. While the two groups share some common membership and the same spokesperson, they are unique in both legal action taken and their makeup.

The claims ask the court to confirm a landowner’s rights as an overlier to pump water underneath his or her land in a reasonable and beneficial manner—a current tenet governing groundwater use in California—and by doing so place that priority over purveyors, or a party that pumps water to sell. Cindy Steinbeck of Steinbeck Vineyards and Winery—spokesperson for both groups—said this is a necessary step in order to protect her and others’ water rights before outside interests try to claim it from under them. This could occur through banking, in which supplemental water is stored in the basin, then pumped out and sold off. Concerns are also directed at a management district that restricts water use over the basin.

“Either government control is precedent or private control is precedent, and either way the landowners lose their rights,” Steinbeck said. “We’re simply protecting our water rights.”

But while everyone knows there’s certainly a looming issue with groundwater levels, Steinbeck and others want more information before they’re convinced that drastic actions are necessary. Before the ordinance was passed, Steinbeck was Mecham’s appointee on the Agricultural Liaison Advisory Board (ALAB), a group made up of agricultural representatives from across the county. The 17-member group voted unanimously to recommend the supervisors hold off on passing the ordinance until the basin’s health was more clearly illustrated, specifically by a Public Works update on an ongoing groundwater modeling study. The update was presented to the supervisors on Dec. 17.

After the urgency ordinance passed, Steinbeck resigned from ALAB and began considering how to address what she considers a knee-jerk decision by the county. She argues that the hastiness of the process can leave overliers vulnerable and the basin wrapped in bureaucracy. PRAAGS’ Reaugh, however, is among those who didn’t want to wait, one reason PRAAGS took a deep breath and supported the urgency ordinance.

“It’s clear to me that we can’t run the basin the way we’ve been doing it, which is everybody has been able to use whatever they want whenever they want,” Reaugh said.

Luft agrees: “The object is to have governance to manage and stabilize the basin,” she said. “Water is a shared resource, and we need a governance process to manage that shared resource.”

When asked about the criticisms addressed at the agreements, both Reaugh and Luft took it as an indication of doing something right.

“I would just say that’s testimony to this as a good compromise,” Luft said.


Staff writer Jono Kinkade can be reached at [email protected].

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

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