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Defeat of proposed Paso Basin Water District brings more uncertainty 

Following the resounding defeat of a proposed special tax and water district to manage the sprawling Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, its opponents quietly rejoiced while proponents released a heavy sigh before attempting to figure out what’s next. 

The preliminary results updated March 11 showed voters and landowners in the basin were overwhelmingly opposed to the water district as proposed by the county and a coalition of stakeholder groups. Three different votes were cast to approve funding, the formation of a district, and the would-be district’s board. Measure A-16, which required two-thirds approval to pass and would have created a special tax to generate an operations budget of almost $1 million annually for five years, was voted down with no’s totaling approximately 77 percent of the vote. Measure B-16, which needed a simple majority to create the district, saw approximately 73 percent of participating voters voting no.

If the funding vote passed but the district vote didn’t, the county would have used the funds to pursue management options for the depleting basin.

The proposed district was hatched in December 2013 after the viticulturist group Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) and the rural residential group Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Overliers for Water Equity (PRO Water Equity) found common ground after fighting over management approaches. The district’s nine-member board was designed to represent registered voters and small, medium, and large landowner categories and required special legislation to go through Sacramento.

In 2014, the state legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires the formation of a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) and a groundwater sustainability plan to balance basins in overdraft, including the Paso basin. Should no GSA be formed by July 1, 2017, state regulators could intervene.

Many looked to the district to become the anchor for that state compliance. Now, decision-makers are debating whether the county should step in or just cede control to the state.

First District Supervisor Frank Mecham, who represents part of the basin, advocated for local control, including a special district run by basin overliers and property owners.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say that there are better options, and I’ve said, ‘Let’s hear them.’ I haven’t heard them,” Mecham said. “I think no matter what, there has to be some sort of cost component to whatever we’re going to have.”

The district’s opponents largely advocate for the county to take the task on. Supervisors Debbie Arnold—who also represents part of the basin—and Lynn Compton released a statement the morning after the election supporting this position.

“The landowners of the Paso Robles basin have spoken clearly. They do not want to create another layer of government to do the job that the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District has performed for more than 70 years,” the March 9 letter said. “We know that the county’s Public Works Department is fully capable of doing the work necessary to comply with the new state laws.”

Arnold and Compton’s colleagues, however, don’t exactly share this vision, and the five-member county Board of Supervisors routinely debates whether the entire county should be responsible for managing the basin and footing the bill that goes with it. That split illustrates what some people say caused such a dire water situation in the first place: contentious county politics.

“The county has not managed the basin well, and they don’t have the funding to do it,” said Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity. “We wouldn’t be where we’re at if something had been done in the past. I don’t see that the decision makers are going to make the decisions that are needed.”

Cody Ferguson, principle officer of the Paso Robles Water Integrity Network, which led the charge against the district, said a district would also be political, becoming a “superfluous layer of government.” The county, he said, is already equipped to manage the basin and to comply with state law. 

Still, it’s not clear if the county has either the capacity or the political will. Public Works Director Wade Horton said that the county’s budget has funds to help special projects and districts get off the ground, but not for annual operating costs, which are typically funded by those directly benefiting from a project.

“In the end, we work for the people, so we are capable of moving forward with basin management, but we need a funding source in order to do that,” he said.

As for options other than county- or state-led management, Steven Sinton, a founder of PRAAGS, said that they’re still collecting their thoughts and figuring out what’s next.

“All of us who worked on the district are a bit exhausted at this point,” Sinton said. “But we don’t have time to wait, if we’re going to do something, we need to do it.”

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

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

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