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Paso water district bill flows through state Senate committees

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The necessary legislation for the proposed Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Water District has made some steady advancements in Sacramento.

Because the district has a hybrid board with categories comprised of both landowners and rural residents—something that isn’t yet written into state law—a piece of special legislation had to be written before the process can move forward. The bill—AB 2453, introduced by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian earlier this year—has since become snared in a growing fight over how the ailing basin will be managed, and by whom.

The bill’s specifics have become a bit hazy after the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 on June 17 to change its position on a key piece of the district’s formation process. Since endorsing the bill in February, the supervisors had accepted the district’s acreage-based formation vote, which has been the subject of growing criticism because large landowners would then have a de facto majority when landowners within the district boundaries vote on whether to form the district. Now, the supervisors have taken the position of only supporting amendments to the bill if the formation is also amended to a one landowner, one vote structure.

Because that shift occurred the night before one state Senate committee hearing, and a week before another, there was an atmosphere of uncertainty among the parties involved. The legislative dust has since begun to settle, and the bill’s author and two biggest proponents are still trudging ahead in support.

Both Paso Robles Alliance for Agricultural Solutions (PRAAGS) and PRO Water Equity—the two groups that pitched the hybrid district—said they are OK with the changes so far, and are remaining focused on the end goal of a local management body. Some opponents remain, however, arguing that the district’s board should be elected by a popular vote, rather than the current version, which breaks seats into categories for small, medium, and large landowners, as well as some at-large seats.

“From the beginning we’ve said that this hybrid structure is a fair way to govern the district,” said Sue Luft, president of the rural residential group PRO Water Equity. “It gives everyone a voice and no way for any group to control the board.”

The bill received an 8-0 vote of support (with one abstention) on June 24 from the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, including support from Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat whose district includes San Luis Obispo County, marking the first time he’s taken a public stance on the issue.

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

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