New Times San Luis Obispo

Paso H20 district denied role in basin talks

Peter Johnson Mar 8, 2018 4:00 AM

On March 6, San Luis Obispo County supervisors denied a North County water district a role in the management discussions for the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, citing low public "trust" in its members and the "scary" prospect of commercial agriculture having outsized power in basin decisions.

Image Courtesy Of Slo County
DENIED REPRESENTATION The SLO County Board of Supervisors declined a request from the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District to manage areas of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin currently under county jurisdiction.

In a contentious 3-2 vote, the Board of Supervisors declined to relinquish any of its groundwater management authority to the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston (EPC) Water District, a district composed of 170 landowners and agriculturalists in North County—including major grape producers like J Lohr and Justin Vineyards.

The decision means that the district's members will be barred from a multi-agency process of writing a groundwater sustainability plan for the 780-square-mile aquifer over the next two years, per the state's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). It marks the latest clash between the North County commercial agriculture community, rural residents, and county supervisors over groundwater.

"There is a lot of distrust in this room," 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton noted after 90 minutes of intense public comment and before she voted against the district.

The EPC Water District formed in late 2017, with the hope to represent commercial ag interests on the Paso Robles Basin Cooperative Committee, a body made up of five water agencies—including the county, city of Paso Robles, and Shandon-San Juan Water District—and charged with writing a 20-year sustainability plan for the drought-stricken basin.

Because the district was formed after a SGMA deadline, the EPC district needed county approval to assume partial management control and join the negotiations.

But Supervisors John Peschong, Debbie Arnold, and Compton objected to how the county's voting powers would diminish on the committee with the EPC district's involvement. The county's voting and cost share would've dropped from 61 to 32 percent.

"If you look at the numbers, I can't get my head around it," Peschong said. "I think it's disproportionate. This is what I think is the scariest part about this."

Peschong's comments echoed the fears of a chorus of North County landowners who have been opposed to the formation of Paso water districts since 2014—the year agricultural stakeholders proposed a single water district to manage the Paso basin, an idea defeated by voters in a 2016 election. On March 6, residents repeated past concerns about the threat of water banking, theft, and mismanagement if the EPC Water District and the Shandon-San Juan Water District—which has a 20 percent vote on the committee—were to "join forces."

"I am a bit of a conspiracy theorist. There is a voting cabal that could be formed in the North County," said Cody Ferguson, a landowner over the basin.

In addition to denying any alleged agenda to hijack the committee, EPC Water District officials pointed out that the basin's final sustainability plan requires a unanimous vote from all members of the committee.

"We simply want to be at the table," said Dana Merrill, the president of the EPC Water District.

Supervisors Bruce Gibson and Adam Hill dissented to the board majority's decision, calling it ideological and fear-based.

"I find myself at this disbelief that no matter how many times we try to direct people to do the right thing, and they do it, we're not going to let them go forward," Hill said.

Supervisor Compton laid the responsibility at the feet of the water district stakeholders.

"You guys have divided the community up there. You've done nothing to build consensus. You've just sort of gone through with it, and created a lot of suspicion," Compton said. Δ