It’s official: Voters will decide on the Paso Robles Basin Water District in March 2016.
After a painstaking process that took about two years, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors cast several deciding votes on Nov. 10 to send the taxation and formation of a water district to the voters.
The approval itself, which has been both very contentious and widely anticipated, came after a day-long hearing that required three distinct rounds of hearings and decisions, each requiring their own staff report, public comment, board deliberations, and a final vote.
Now, voters within the district’s boundary will make two decisions come March 8, 2016—whether they want to approve a parcel tax to fund the management of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin and whether they want to create a water district to do so.
In general, water levels in the sprawling basin have been steadily declining, inspiring a long, bitter fight among several stakeholders over how it should be managed—if at all—and by whom.
The debate is entangled in a convoluted web of questions centered on if the basin’s management should be in the hands of a locally-controlled water district, the county flood control district (basically the Board of Supervisors), the state, or the courts. Under state laws passed in 2014, a local body must eventually manage basins in severe decline or the state will step in.
The naysayers and the supporters of the district—and those in between—got several opportunities to rail against the board and SLO County staff, to deliver accolades, and to air specific concerns or ask questions during the public comment portion of the Nov. 10 meeting. All in all, the day resembled a drama in three acts, complete with a prologue.
Several speakers called the parcel tax illegal; other speakers took turns reading off the names of people who signed a petition protesting the district’s formation; supporters highlighted the dire need for management and for compromise.
By the end of the day, the board finalized the district’s boundary (3-2); approved the parcel tax schedule to fund the district (4-1); and approved sending a letter to the state asking what basin management would look like if it took over (3-2). At the request of SLO County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong, who will oversee the election, the board also authorized the formation vote (4-1).
Supervisor Debbie Arnold voted no on every decision, joined at times by Supervisor Lynn Compton, who cast both yes and no votes depending on the issue.
Arnold voted no on the final decision—whether to send the formation to voters—even though their decision was not binding, reiterating her ongoing concern over whether the voting structure was fair.
Supervisor Frank Mecham, on the other hand, saw it differently.
“I think we should stay the course, and if you really feel that this is the right thing, the American way, then let people vote for it,” Mecham said to the audience. “Let us let you decide.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay