Group petitions LAFCO for a new water district



The gates have been opened for a process that may lead to the formation of a California Water District in North San Luis Obispo County, a proposal that’s certain to draw some controversy along the way.

The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), a group representing agriculturalists in the North County, has submitted a petition for formation of the Paso Robles Basin Water District to the SLO County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). A California Water District is one form of a management structure in which a board manages water in an assigned area. Before LAFCO considers the district for approval, the petition will need the signatures of the title owners for the majority of the land in the area.

The proposal comes amid dropping groundwater levels, which have led to failing residential wells and a widespread concern for the future of water availability in North County.

Forming this district has been a primary goal of PRAAGS. Dana Merrill, vice chair of PRAAGS and president of Mesa Vineyard Management, said now that the notice of petition has been filed, it’s a matter of getting support.

“Hopefully people will think it’s a wonderful idea and want to sign it,” he told New Times.

Merrill said that this is the logical next step after the SLO County Board of Supervisors’ Aug. 27 approval of an urgency ordinance that prevents new increases of water use from the basin unless the use qualifies under certain exemptions. While the idea of a water district has been on the table during the discussion on the basin, it hasn’t been the only idea put forward. Members of PRO Water Equity (PWE), a group composed of rural residents concerned about dropping water levels in the basin and dry wells, have spoken against the formation of a water district to oversee the basin, saying it would favor large landowners.

“From our end we don’t understand the necessity for PRAAGS to push through this petition at this time,” said Sue Luft, president of PWE. “This is unfair to the majority of the water users in the basin.”

The contention rests on the way decision makers will be put in place under a water district, which will be on a “one acre, one vote” basis. PWE has proposed a different management structure, one that would sit under the SLO County Flood Control District as a quasi-dependent district with a board of directors. Decision makers in this type of district, called a zone of benefit district, would be elected on a “one person, one vote” basis, a process PWE considers more fair.

It’s possible that costs for infrastructure to supply water will be assessed based on benefit; people using the most pay the most. Because of this, the only way to get the large landowners to pay these costs is to form a structure where they feel they are proportionally represented, Merrill explained.

“Let’s face it. The main thing we’ve got to do is to have the big users pay for solutions,” Merrill said. “There is no way to do that without an entity like the water district we’re proposing.”

That’s where residents are nervous. While PRAAGS argues that it’s the only group putting up money and a positive solution to the basin’s declining water levels, PWE wants to stay in the spirit of collaboration in creating a district that everyone can get behind. The two groups have agreed on a lot so far, but the management structure form is a main point of contention.

“Why don’t we get something that everyone can agree upon first?” Luft asked.

In the meantime, PRAAGS hopes to gather the necessary signatures and submit the petition to LAFCO by the end of the year.

“We’re tired of waiting. We’ve been waiting 60 years for the county and somebody else to start doing something,” Merrill said. “We want to get this thing done and we’re doggonit going to roll up our sleeves and push as hard as we can.”

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

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