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New water districts proposed for Paso basin

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After being dealt a crushing defeat in a March special election, proponents of forming a water district over the sprawling Paso Robles Groundwater Basin are back at it again.

This time, however, they’re taking a different approach.

Two separate groups made up of prominent viticulturists are attempting to create two California water districts. The Shandon-San Juan District proposal includes the areas near Shandon and down Shell Creek Road to Highway 58. The Estrella-Pomar-Creston District proposal seeks to cover much of the remaining rural areas over the basin.

The districts would only include landowners who choose to opt-in. In turn, only those signed up to participate can vote on whether to form and fund the district.

The last attempt, initially proposed in 2013, would have formed a district that included all landowners within its boundary—almost all of the unincorporated area atop the basin. Voters rejected the controversial proposal earlier this year with more than 70 percent voting no to both form and fund the district.

In the midst of the fight over that proposal, state legislators passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires the formation of a groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) for basins found to be in severe overdraft, including the Paso basin. GSAs will be made up of water basin stakeholders, including cities, the county, and water districts. 

Proponents of the new districts say they’ll give agriculturalists and other landowners a better seat at the table, said Willy Cunha of Sunview Vineyards, a signatory of the Shandon-San Juan Water District.

“Locals have the most knowledge of their groundwater conditions and more importantly the most invested in the local groundwater resource,” Cunha wrote in an email. “Having the farmers, who have the most to lose by poor groundwater management and the most to gain from good management, intimately involved in local SGMA planning and compliance makes perfect sense.”

Signature gathering for that district is already well underway, and it’s been to the San Luis Obispo County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) for study sessions. The Estrella-Pomar-Creston district is just starting to gather signatures.

The GSAs must be formed by June 30, 2017; both districts must be formed before then to participate in the process. After that, Cunha said, there’s plenty more to come.

“It is going to be a long, convoluted, and very public task,” he wrote.

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

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