Opinion » Commentaries

Balance the basin

Don't let outsiders determine what happens to our groundwater

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Sarah Christie’s commentary on the Paso Robles Basin (“Whose basin is it?” April 24) does nothing to solve the groundwater problems, offers no solutions, and only serves to pit property owners against each other. It is difficult to travel anywhere in the North County without passing vineyards, farms, and ranches, all of which contribute to the county’s economic health. All residents and small property owners enjoy the benefits of our agricultural community. In short, all of us are here to stay, and we have to find a way to come together to manage our groundwater.

Let’s be clear: Why would any rancher, farmer, vineyard owner, or rural resident want to damage or destroy the very thing that makes their property valuable and this area so special?

Just as agriculture is the economic engine of our county, it, too, will be tasked with paying the majority of the costs of any groundwater management structure in the future. This is true for a state- or county-run district, a court-mandated plan overseen by a water master, or the proposed water district. The state’s Constitution permits voting by acreage, and the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the concept. Specifically, those who will pay the most should have a say in the operation of the governance structure commensurate with their financial contribution. A one-person, one-vote water district is used in urban areas were most of the water services are provided to residents, and there is little agricultural activity.

This is precisely why two diverse groups, PRAAGS (Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions) and PRO Water Equity, came together. Our goal has always been to make sure that the basin is brought into balance in such a way so that all those who own property and live here can continue to prosper in the years ahead. These groups are made up of a cross section of folks who own one acre to thousands, which is the way it should be. We are farmers, ranchers, vineyard owners, and rural residents who are just as concerned about our groundwater as anyone.

We, too, share the concern that we want no one landowner group to be able to dominate others, and this is directly addressed in the proposed hybrid governance structure. Three of the nine proposed board members are elected by registered voters within the proposed district, and two members each are voted by small (1 to 40 acres) medium (40 to 400 acres) and large (400 acres plus) property owners. There are approximately 4,400 landowners in the proposed basin, of which more than 85 percent are in the small acreage category. This alone guarantees that at least five of the nine members will be elected by registered voters and small acreage owners. Most importantly, the large landowners can never control the board, as they can only vote for two of the nine board members and are a small number in the popular vote category. To run for election, board members must live over or near the proposed district and must own property with its boundaries.

We have only a few options left to us as to how we control our groundwater resources in the future: First, allow the state to come in at some point to manage our groundwater for us, which they have said they will if we don’t do something.

Second, continue to have the county run the basin through the Flood Control District or create a special management agency. In either case, the Board of Supervisors will control it even though only two of the five supervisors represent the basin.

Third, after years of legal battles and at great expense, we can let the courts decide how much water we get through a court-appointed water master. But the courts will never provide us with additional water.

Lastly, we can form our own water district run by folks who live and own property here. These should be people we know and trust to represent everyone regardless of how small or big we are or what we do with our land. So we say, “Why let outsiders decide what happens to our groundwater?” We say, “Why not all of us in the North County?”


Jerry Reaugh is chairman of PRAAGS and Sue Luft is president of PRO Water Equity. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.

-- Sue Luft - El Pomar

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