Like the words of the police inspector in Casablanca who was “shocked that gambling was occurring here” (as he collected his winnings) so too was I surprised that Professor Latner and I agree on a few things. For instance, the assertion that conservatives are routinely excluded from college campuses or if present, must remain incognito lest they find their presence met with open hostility from both faculty and many students. Being shouted down is now a common occurrence that many prominent persons on the lecture circuit experience if they don’t adhere to the politically correct point of view or dare express opinions contrary to the intellectual conformity that now plagues our institutions of higher learning.
We both also agree that name-calling is the first defense of a weak argument, usually coupled with a dismissive attitude toward any facts presented that challenge accepted dogma on any subject. Intellectual curiosity on college campuses is a dangerous pursuit, and its practitioners an endangered species.
A fine example of the ad hominem attack is easily found in the opinion section of our county paper with one of its columnists using every printable expletive imaginable in describing those with whom he disagrees, reserving special doses of venom for conservatives of any stripe. This doesn’t help the non-aligned public make decisions on complex topics but tends to polarize opinion into the “us versus them” category at the outset.
Since Professor Latner brought up the subject of water in North County, I will take issue with a few of his points.
First, it wasn’t “a small group of large landholders who, under the guise of defending property rights” defeated the proposed water district. It was in fact thousands of local property owners, most of them small landholders of a few acres along with longtime residents that defeated the water district by a vote of 2 to 1. The legislation that sparked this “sagebrush rebellion” would have allowed a vote where 4,000 homeowners and local ranchers would have been out-voted by 40 large landholders, primarily corporate vineyards and out-of-area investors. Many water districts are based on one vote per acre owned, and with some very large landowners holding title to thousands of acres, the little guy would be doomed. With the assistance of a local radio station that routinely gives voice to conservative thought, the word got out and the fight was on. The people rallied, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold stood with them, traveling to Sacramento to address the legislative committee ensuring that the vote on the formation of a water district would be “one landowner, one vote” regardless of the size of property holdings.
Second, the proposed district’s million dollar starting budget covered only SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act) compliance costs but not implementation.
North County is experiencing conflict over water as a result of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin being declared in a “state of critical overdraft” by the state Department of Water Resources. By contrast, the Atascadero sub-basin is doing fine, legally excluded from the Paso sub-basin restrictions on water by a recent judicial decision.
However, a long-term and imminent threat to the Atascadero Mutual Water Company and the 30,000 residents it serves is a state initiative to regionalize control of local water. That implies state control of a resource that is first, privately owned under a hundred years of established water law, and second, ignoring the sound management of a vital resource by the Atascadero Mutual Water Company (AMWC) in which every customer is a shareholder. The AMWC has a 100-year record of prudent and forward-looking water management and Atascadero has more than adequate water supplies at reasonable costs even during the drought. That management is at risk of being superseded by state regulators who will implement “tube-sock solutions” to fix non-existent problems. It could include allowing the exporting of water from the Atascadero sub-basin into the greater Paso Robles area with its own growth and water problems, making Atascadero pay for problems that Paso basin stakeholders have failed to adequately address. Landowners outside the boundaries of the AMWC find themselves facing powerful interests alone with an unsympathetic county staff that seems to disdain private water rights and small landowners in rural SLO County.
That leads us into deep philosophical differences on basic rights, enshrined in American law, custom, and culture since its founding, predicated in 800 years of English Common Law. The latter first established the rights of the individual over the state, virtually the opposite of most other European countries and much of the world. This foundation established it further in individual property rights, especially water rights, essential to landholders.
The war over water in North County is but a microcosm of a larger conflict that pits the state against “everyman,” ultimately demanding conformity, first in actions and ultimately in thought, a deadly cocktail for the human spirit. This struggle will continue as long as men are ruled by men as the preservation of liberty requires eternal vigilance.
Al Fonzi is the chairman of the Republican Party of SLO County. He will be contributing to Rhetoric & Reason, an opinion about local politics and the issues affecting the Central Coast, in rotation with Michael Latner, a political science professor at Cal Poly. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com.
-- Al Fonzi - Atascadero