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The fourth option

The solution to Paso's water basin conundrum could be adjudication

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I read Mr. Eric Michielssen’s commentary, “Water basin fixit” in the Nov. 12 issue of New Times. There are a number of errors in his account of the status of the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

First, his stated annual basin deficit of 2,400 acre-feet is a contested figure. If he was following the issue, he would know that for the groundwater model run he quotes, it was assumed that grapes, the predominant crop in the basin, needed an average 1.7 acre-feet of water per acre per year. Field studies conducted locally and done recently by UC Davis determined the real vineyard value to be an average of 1 acre-foot of water per acre per year. There are 37,500 acres of grapes planted over the basin. That is a model calculation error of 26,250 acre-feet per year. According to this model, the Paso Robles groundwater basin is not in overdraft, it is in surplus.

Second, Mr. Michielssen trots out the old canard that if we don’t form a water district, the state will take over our water. If he had taken the time to read the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) he would know that the new law actually says that if a designated basin does not or will not establish a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) and write and adopt a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) to manage the groundwater, within the time limits allowed, the state will step in on a temporary basis to help the basin create a GSA and write the GSP for the basin so the local GSA can take over management. Then the state will go home! The reality is San Luis Obispo County already has a robust AB 3030 Groundwater Management District in place and has been very proactive in studying and managing water use in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. Part of that effort is the aforementioned model study that shows the basin is not in serious overdraft. The other is the urgency ordinance recently adopted by the Board of Supervisors. We are already compliant with SGMA. 

Third, if he had followed the LAFCO debacle, he would know that by the county’s estimate, 90 percent of the properties in the basin use just 3 percent of the total groundwater pumped. They are already responsible water users. Regulating and restricting water use further on these properties will have no significant overall impact. This is why the SGMA legislation explicitly exempts these users, referred to as de minimus users, from regulation. The proposed AB 2453 water district does not. Only regulating the major water users in the basin, primarily the vineyards and the city of Paso Robles, will ensure a sustainable basin. The water district will tax the small users of water to subsidize the regulatory cost of the commercial water users who comprise less than 10 percent of the property over the basin, yet use more than 90 percent of the groundwater. This is an excellent example of “local” crony capitalism. 

Finally, Mr. Michielssen claims that there are only three ways to manage the basin. He conveniently omits a fourth, considered by most legal groundwater experts and the SGMA to be the best option to achieve sustainability. That is adjudication by a court of law. The Paso Robles groundwater basin is in fact currently in legal adjudication. The first phase of the trial will begin early in January 2016 for more than 560 properties requesting quiet title relief.

If Mr. Michielssen had taken the time to talk to any of the more than the 1,200 people who filed protests against the formation of a water district, versus the people from a few households in favor of the district, or spoken with any of the more than 560 families who have filed for quiet title to protect their property rights instead of the very small group of large commercial vineyards and overzealous county regulators and water merchants who want to control the water in the basin, perhaps he would understand the issues from the perspective of the actual residents he wants to represent as a candidate for the 5th District seat on the Board of Supervisors. What we got in his article was simply a rehash of the talking points from a very small group of special interests, most of whom do not live here. 

Cody Ferguson is a resident of Paso Robles. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com. Respond with a letter to the editor sent to letters@newtimesslo.com

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