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Waterspiracy

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Call me cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs but the little water banking conspiracy theory that's been hanging over the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin for years suddenly sounds plausible.

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Here's the gist of it: Big landowners on the east side (cough, cough, Harvard Investment Group) of the Paso basin want to essentially bank water for themselves and then sell it to the highest bidder, profiting off a public resource contained in one of the most severely depleted water basins in California. These shenanigans would come at the expense of others who overlie the water basin and depend on it, because groundwater in a basin isn't separated by property lines.

For the most part, this theory sounds bonkers. With so many eyes on this fraught water source, who would try to be so deviant?

Managed by the county and North County groundwater sustainability agencies through the Paso Basin Cooperative Committee—something conspiracy theory believer 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold pushed for, in part, because of this little water-banking tall tale—the water basin's steps toward a more sustainable future depend on a groundwater sustainability plan passed in 2019.

That way, no one can go rogue!

Or can they?

Well ... I guess that all depends on how you look at the Shandon-San Juan Water District's (containing that Harvard property) recent applications to gain the rights to up to 28,000 acre-feet of unspoken-for water per year from Lake Nacimiento and Santa Margarita Lake.

Arnold doesn't like it one bit!

"These applications represent more of a private entity coming in and asking to basically own or have the rights to the extra water that happens in good flood years," she said.

First of all, there's no such thing as "extra" water.

Secondly, I have to say, she might be right.

Yeah, I said it. Pick that jaw up off the floor.

I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but the applications might be the most ammunition that Shandon-San Juan has given hardcore water bank believers out there to hold onto other than whispered secrets full of hot air.

They are not a good look for the Shandon-San Juan Water District, no matter what district board member Matt Turrentine says. Turrentine, who also manages Harvard Investment Group's vineyards (Go deeper, conspiracy theorists!), is claiming that the water allocation could go a long way to erasing the Paso basin's overdraft.

"This is not just for the benefit of Shandon. We're trying to achieve sustainability for the basin," he said.

See, all of you people who don't trust big agricultural landowners who might try to gain control of a big portion of water they can keep for themselves, they're doing this for you! Technically, though, only the district and its members—not anyone else—will own the water if the state accepts these applications. Semantics, amirite?

He told New Times that diverting water from Nacimiento and Santa Margarita Lake are part of the groundwater sustainability plan, anyway—so nothing to see here! They saw an opportunity to take some unallocated water and filed applications, "in what we hope is a broad collaborative process" with other groundwater sustainability agencies. Simply taking the lead, you know?

Only, none of the other agencies were included on the applications.

And what Shandon-San Juan is proposing in its applications isn't exactly in the sustainability plan. Turrentine's interpretation of the plan is a little bit, umm, broad.

Nacimiento and Salinas Dam (on Santa Margarita Lake) are mentioned as potential sources of water to help bring the basin into balance. However, the actual preferred projects outlined in the plan that Shandon-San Juan and the other members of the Paso basin committee agreed to would deliver up to 3,500, 1,250, and 2,500 acre-feet of Nacimiento Water Project water to three separate parts of the basin—near San Miguel, north of the city of Paso, and just east of Paso, respectively.

The plan doesn't outline projects that deliver 14,000 acre-feet of Naci water to the basin for Shandon-San Juan Water District members.

And as far as Santa Margarita Lake goes, the plan is to expand the dam—not give all its extra water to Shandon-San Juan.

So I'm not 100 percent sure that this "broad collaborative process" is off to a winning start. It's off to a sketchy one that's bound to inflame tensions and conspiracy theorizing in an already contentious water basin.

In fact, it already has! No surprises there.

Arnold and 1st District Supervisor John Peschong are talking about sending a letter to the state saying the county wasn't communicated with about the applications.

"They just went and did it on their own," Arnold said.

Boy they sure did, didn't they.

Kind of like how the San Luis Obispo Police Department decided that it did a good job of managing the protests last summer. Kind of funny that a police department can pat itself on the back for a job well done when city residents believe the opposite.

One of the police department's biggest accomplishments over the last year, according to a presentation it put together for a SLO City Council meeting: "Protest Management."

I guess that depends on how you define protest management.

Riot gear, check. Lots of sandwiches from Mr. Pickles, check. Shoot tear gas into a crowd of young adults, check. Deny wrongdoing, check. Δ

The Shredder is wondering where to turn in sandwich expenses. Send comments to shredder@newtimesslo.com.

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