Some North County interests believe they are so special that they require a brand-new governance structure to manage the groundwater beneath their vines. Their proposal, which is so special it requires a special vote of the state Legislature, is embodied by Assemblymember Katcho Achadjiian’s bill AB 2453, which would conveniently place 90 large landowners in control of the water supply for 20,000 residents over the Paso Robles groundwater basin. From a public perspective, this precedent is neither warranted nor desirable.
Katcho’s request for LAFCO to fast-track this proposal is based on a false choice between his bill or a state take-over of the basin. There are other, more reasonable alternatives.
The Board of Supervisors could form a County Water Authority on their own motion and take over responsibility for managing the basin immediately. Or they could ask the courts to adjudicate the basin. Or the voters could create a special district with the authority to manage the basin, such as a Municipal Water District, a Community Services District, or a County Water District. Directors would be elected the old-fashioned way: one person, one vote.
Acreage-based voting models patterned after antiquated irrigation districts are unnecessary and completely inappropriate. Acreage-based voting is a vestige of 19th-century water law that has no rational policy application here, where not all voters over the basin are land owners, and everyone has equal rights and responsibilities when it comes to the water we all depend on. Irrigation districts were typically formed to purchase and distribute imported water for agricultural uses. They manage water as a commodity exclusively available to the people who pay for it, not as an essential, shared community resource. Their acreage-based governance structure reflects the thinking that since the people with the most land buy the most water, they should have the most say over its allocation. That is simply not appropriate for a water basin that tens of thousands of families and homeowners already depend upon for their daily existence.
So why are a small number of people in SLO so committed to making this more complicated than it needs to be?
Follow the money. The primary beneficiaries of this “hybrid” structure are the vineyard owners who largely created the problem. If the basin is governed by directors elected at large, industrial ag producers fear losing their unfettered access to millions of gallons of free water. They don’t really want to see the basin managed equitably for all. They want a “hybrid” board that they control in order to plunder the basin while they pursue imported water and pass the costs on to residents. Unfortunately, they have enough political clout to advance their spectacularly bad idea, even against the will of the majority.
As the current crisis has proven, this Wild West approach to water extraction can’t continue. Even as water levels drop in a historic drought, industrial ag operators are sinking extra deep wells in a new kind of race to the bottom. The people who can afford such wells are not “stewards of the land.” These are corporate investors and profiteers who see water as a commodity similar to oil or timber or precious metals. They are mining our groundwater for profit. And just as resource pirates clear-cut timber and leave the hillsides to slide in the rain, and leave open pit mines leaching mercury when the gold runs out, the large-scale vineyard owners will walk away from the Paso Robles basin when it collapses in on itself or the water becomes too toxic for irrigation. We will lose our homes, our livelihoods, and our communities. They will either buy your devalued land for pennies on the dollar or take their profits and move on.
But they can’t do that if they don’t control the votes that manage the basin. Which is why AB 2453 must be defeated in its current form or amended to create a truly democratic district. The Paso Robles groundwater basin should be managed for people, not profit.
Sarah Christie lives in Creston. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.