SLO County joins backroom water talks



The California Department of Water Resources wants to hold super secret preliminary discussions before public negotiations begin for long-term contracts between the department and 29 local-level agencies that draw from the state’s water supply; on March 19, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors agreed to wade into the shadows.

Although the board expressed frustration and worry over the request, they ultimately voted 4-1 to approve a non-disclosure agreement with the Department of Water Resources (DWR). Supervisor Debbie Arnold dissented on principle.

“It’s like we’re being held hostage,” she said. “Either we give into something we don’t believe is right, or we’re left out.”

According to Public Works Director Paavo Ogren, the San Luis Obispo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District was the last water contractor to join the backroom discussions, which left the county at a disadvantage.

Ogren said there’d be no opportunities to build trust among the other contractors and DWR without SLO County representatives involved, and local staff wouldn’t be able to gauge the body language and posturing of other parties. Still, he maintained that no deals could be forged without public scrutiny. The closed discussions are intended only to establish the framework for negotiations and decide what technical information is relevant.

“It seems like a fine line between negotiation and discussion,” Supervisor Frank Mecham said. “But I’d rather be in the game than not.”

The agreement was a last-minute addition to the board’s consent calendar, which is reserved for routine, non-controversial items. It was pulled for discussion after two community members spoke against the agreement, noting that backroom deals “spark suspicion” from the public.

The current contract between SLO County and DWR was signed in 1963 and is set to expire in 2038. An extension would give DWR time to collect money from SLO County and other contractors to help fund a $25 billion restoration project for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, an environment that’s been significantly altered to feed the bulk of California’s water demand.

SLO County uses just one quarter of one percent of the pumped resource, which doesn’t buy a lot of power at the negotiating table, Ogren said. Los Angeles and Kern counties use a combined 75 percent of the state water supply.

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