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PRAAGS presents its case for a water district 

Agriculturalists representing farmers who work above the stressed Paso Robles Groundwater Basin have continued towing the boat they say will take overliers to safety amid concerns over falling well levels.

The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) presented its goal to form a California Water District to a crowd of roughly 300 people, who filled a large ballroom at the Paso Robles Inn on Nov. 13. Board members of the group—all involved in some aspect of the viticulture industry—presented the details and the process for the district’s formation.

“We’ve got to keep agriculture viable; we’ve got to make it viable to stay in business,” said Dana Merrill, president of Mesa Vineyard Management and PRAAGS vice chairman.

Merrill discussed the need for a body that can find supplemental water to feed an increasing demand in the area. How to form the district and who would run it have been issues of contention. Some rural residents worry that the one-acre, one-vote method typically used to form a water district would favor large landowners and won’t necessarily be good for people who own fewer acres.

A group of residents living above the basin, PRO Water Equity—which is also exploring the formation of a management structure—said in a statement that a water district is an outdated model with the main power to “bring in supplemental water, and little else,” and that the type of district “does not have many of the powers needed to manage the basin as a whole, in order to stabilize the basin.”

While the two groups have different visions for a management district, they’ve been discussing the issue and searching for middle ground, reaching some compromise along the way. PRAAGS has said it’s willing to consider a board structure that isn’t strictly along the one-acre, one-vote formula.

Some residents are still skeptical of the facts being thrown around. PRAAGS has presented a chart detailing the decrease in agriculture water use over several decades, with a calculated 44.5 percent net reduction, partly due to the decrease in acreage devoted to water-intensive crops like alfalfa. Laurie Gage, who owns a horse boarding facility, wonders about the accuracy of that number, however, saying it’s based on the assumption that vineyards use only one acre-foot per year, which may be significantly lower than actual use.

“It casts irrigated agriculture in a light that I don’t think is accurate,” Gage told New Times.

She also worries that if votes are assigned based on land owned, some votes could fall into the hands of international companies based elsewhere.

Many of the attendants were receptive, offering general comments that the district is necessary, and while they still may not be entirely convinced or clear on the details, there’s hope that a fair conclusion will be reached. In order for the proposal to move on to the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission for consideration, the petitioners must get signatures from title holders for at least 51 percent of the property within district boundaries.

The event came just a day after the magazine Wine Enthusiast named Paso Robles as Wine Region of the Year, recognizing the region’s “new blood” and rapidly improving wines. The innovation that helped the region win the prize has also been a key part of the increasing demand for grapes, creating an incentive for more acreage to be planted. There was no mention of the area’s water woes in the award’s announcement.

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

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