June 23, 2013


PASO ROBLES Large and small landowners are divided over how to manage water in the Paso Robles groundwater basin as one group pursues the creation of a water district and the other fights for a voice in the process. 

   Two grassroots organizations Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), consisting largely of agricultural landowners, and PRO Water Equity, consisting largely of rural residential landowners with some others, are emerging as leaders representing two sides of the groundwater issue. Both groups have a strong membership base and attorneys , though, so far, everyone agrees that they don't want adjudication, which would take their disagreements to the courts and out of local control. 

   PRAAGS' water-supply solution is to form a water district, a government agency that would, they say, pool resources between landowners. Assessments money paid to the district would likely be based on a landowner's acreage , which means larger landowners would pay the highest fees to support the district. Large landowners' incentive to take on the bulk of payments, PRAAG leaders say, is that votes in the district would also be based on acreage virtually giving those landowners control over decisions made to manage the basin. Rural resi- dents say that's a problem. 

   "Just because they have larger acreage shouldn't allow them to buy more rights, or to speak for us," said rural resident Elaine Hagen, a member of PRO Water Equity. "They'll be dictating how we all use our water based on their larger bank accounts. Can we trust that they'd be speaking with the best voice for the property owners ? All our financial future is tied up in our property. Can we afford to take the chance that they'll do what's best for us, or will they, by nature of the business model, have to do what's best for their bottom line, and let us perish? Our going belly up doesn't affect them at all." 

   PRAAGS boardmembers say ag landowners are facing the same crisis as residents and that they, in fact, are residents too. "There's a misconception that ag doesn't care about this situation everything that happens to rural residents, well, that happens here too," said PRAAGS Chair Jerry Reaugh, who owns Sereno Vista Vineyards . "I think the points of view boil down to you have people with competing thoughts over who has rights to the resources. Here, it's been legally up for grabs for a long time. The reality is, we have a declining situation, and we want to put something in place to fix it. We can't do another 50 years like we've done the last 50 years." 

   The formation of a water district is a goal-in-action for PRAAGS. The group currently has attorneys writing language to define the potential water district . They say the steps they're following with the goal of creating the district start with defining the district, followed by circulating a petition to stakeholders PRAAGS expects circulation to happen in the fall. There will be public hearings and the issue will go before the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors for a vote then onto a ballot to go before voters, which is expected to happen in spring of 2014. 

   "A groundwater basin management structure needs to have the authority to require water use allocations and reporting," said PRO Water President Sue Luft. "A water district with this authority and responsibilities could be funded with reasonable assessments on all parcels and all water users. We do not agree with PRAAGS's statement that having more votes would be the incentive needed to get the larger landowners to support a water district for which they would be paying most of the cost. The cost of operating a district that is charged with managing water use is much less expensive than a district , which is formed for the purpose of providing supplemental water. If a supplemental water project is determined to be feasible, cost effective and acceptable to basin users, such a project can be pursued in the future by the water district." 

   Dana Merrill, PRAAG vice chair and owner of Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery had another take on the situation. 

   "A California Water District the beauty of that is we start with the biggest landowners and water users and bring them together as one entity to use better water practices," Merrill said. "I also think we're going to need some supplemental water. We are trying to effect change. We don't believe we're going to be able to save our way out of this. We all have our personal responsibility in dealing with some of these problems." 

   Supplemental water could come from a number of sources, such as the Nacimiento Water Project, a $176 million water project that will deliver water from Lake Nacimiento to opted-in municipalities and the county. It consists of 45 miles of pipeline and other equipment and facilities to convey 15,750 acre-feet of water from the lake to local water agencies within the boundaries of the SLO County Flood Control and Water Conservation District. 

   "PRAAGS's other premise is that we can supply our way out of this situation," Luft said. "The fact is we have an urgent situation and any supplemental water supply project would take over a decade before it could deliver any water to the basin. There simply is not enough groundwater for all users at the current rate of pumping, and water use reduction is the only solution in the near term." 

   Though the water district does not provide a short-term solution, it is a solution, Merrill said. 

   "We are not denying that there has been a decline in the basin," Merrill said. "The water district offers the fastest solution to this problem even though it's not as fast as some people need it." 

   Added Hagen, "We're already in overdraft, using more water than we have. Their solution will be to hope to bring in more water, instead of reducing the water they're using now. Their plan is to import their way out of the water crisis." 

   There are some 6,000 rural residential landowners along the groundwater basin, about 26,000 vineyard acres and 200 wineries. A growing number of rural residents are reporting dry wells and are saying that, though they want long-term solutions, they want immediate answers too. 

   "The crux is that we'd have the organization in place to address the water issues," said Stacie Jacobs, chief strategist with Solterra Strategies, a marketing firm in Paso Robles. "It's a balance of our resources and community benefits." 

   PRO Water and PRAAGS met during the spring, with their attorneys, to discuss the possible water district. 

   "PRO Water Equity met with PRAAGS to learn about their proposal," Luft said. "We do not agree with their approach . PRAAGS is proposing a California Water District, which would be controlled by the landowners with the most acreage which produces the highest assessed valuation. This form of a water district is obviously unacceptable to most basin landowners. It does not provide fair representation or any representation for the vast majority of the people who depend on the groundwater basin for their water supply." 

   Merrill said it's time to take action on solving the problem. 

   "How about if everyone gets off their butts and does something," Merrill said. "Once you're done with all the handwringing, don't we have to do something?" 

   Merrill and Reaugh say the water district, as a government agency, gives locals access to grants and a way to deal with other government agencies that individual residents and business people don't have. "I think the main goal off the bat is to get the water table stabilized," Merrill said. "Trying to figure out what's going on and what the solution is is complicated. We believe in rolling up our sleeves and finding a solution to this problem . If the basin gets stabilized then doesn't everyone win? You have to get the big guys to carry the cost. Sooner or later, you've got to create a structure and bring in people who are going to pay for it." 

   Luft described it as a "critical situation, which requires both emergency measures and a long-term approach to proper management of the groundwater basin. Water use reductions are the only way to stabilize the rapidly declining well levels. The process must be fair and equitable to all basin users." 

   Reaugh said well problems shouldn't be a surprise. 

   "We understand the frustration welcome to country living," Reaugh said. "It's not always as romantic as people think it is. Everyone has rights to groundwater, but no one's done anything."

« Back to News