After yet another fiery meeting on the perennial issue of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors voted to move forward with submitting an application to form a water district.
The district discussion has revealed a sharp difference of opinions over what local control looks like and who would be the best choice to manage the basin. At the front of that debate is whether the basin—which has seen both a decline in well levels in recent years and an increase in demand—would be best managed by a water district or by the board of supervisors sitting as the Flood Control District.
- FILE PHOTO BY TOM FALCONER
- DRY DECISION: The J Lohr vineyard on Cross Canyon Road east of San Miguel is among thousands of acres planted after receiving a vested rights exemption from the two-year urgency ordinance, passed in November 2013, that banned new and expanded water use.
Proponents of the water district have insisted its formation would bring local control to the basin’s management, because board members and those who vote for them would be required to live on or own property over the basin. Opponents worry that the district could be manipulated by powerful parties who may act to serve their own interests rather than the interests of the majority of overliers. In addition, some disagreement existed about which agency would be better fit to bring groundwater management into compliance with new state requirements on the horizon.
“Please send this on to LAFCO. Let us, the residents in the North County, have a voice in how that water is managed. Let us get involved in it,” said Michael Baugh, a rural Paso Robles resident and small-vineyard owner. “None of you live over the basin. None of you are water users in the same extent where we check our water level daily or weekly to see how much is still there.”
Cindy Steinbeck, whose family owns a vineyard east of Paso Robles, expressed concerns about what specific powers the district will have, including the ability to assess fees and regulate demand.
“I’m hoping that we can discuss the powers,” Steinbeck said. “Are we just going to ship this off to LAFCO rather than discuss each one of the powers?”
The supervisors voted 3-2 on April 21 to submit the application to the SLO County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
Before the eventual 3-2 vote, supervisors Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton each gave an explanation of why they voted to oppose sending the application. Compton read from a long written statement that touched on several concerns aired by overliers wary of the district, including worries that the district would favor irrigated agriculture over residents and smaller producers.
“I am not opposed to the creation of a water district if the people that are going to be affected by this so choose it,” Compton said.
“Influences from outside of the basin and non-local influences have been the biggest factors in causing the basin to be depleted, aside from the drought,” she explained. “Everybody talks about local control, but I think there were factors that weren’t local control to cause this to begin with.”
Supervisor Adam Hill expressed his support for the district because the Board of Supervisors would also be subject to politics while managing the basin.
“There hasn’t been any action by us as the Flood Control District, and part of that is because of the political process,” Hill said.
Mecham, who also supported moving the application forward, said the best thing to do is to let overliers vote.
“This is one of the toughest things to ever have to deal with: Half like it; the other half don’t like it. That’s just the way it is,” Mecham said. “We don’t know if people want it or not. If you put this to LAFCO and let them vote on it, you’ll find out.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay