A California water district: the best approach to manage our water crisis
November 18, 2013
OPINION By PRAGG PRESIDENT JERRY REAUGH
PRAAGS supported, and still supports, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors’ decision to pass the urgency ordinance (UO) covering the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, enacted on August 27. But the ordinance is a stopgap. It’s a timeout. It is not a permanent solution to the problem of declining basin levels. In fact, it offers no solution at all.
It’s time now to move forward so the county can eventually lift the ordinance and so it doesn’t remain in place for years to come, choking the engine that drives our economy, driving property values into the ground and harming the Central Coast life we’ve all come to know and love.
Impact of the Urgency Ordinance
We’ve had little time to realize the consequences and full impact of the UO. However, here are some things to keep in mind as we move forward, swiftly, in our effort to establish a California water district – the most sustainable, affordable and fair solution for water in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.
The UO requires that any new development or irrigation be offset by a 1:1 ratio, and most small farmers and rural residents will not be able to afford this.
So for the next two years, if you want to put a trailer with water hookups on your property for your daughter, son-in-law and brand new granddaughter – you can’t. If you want to build a granny unit behind your house for your ailing mother – you can’t. If you want to improve the convenience and value of your home by expanding or adding a bathroom – you can’t. If you want to plant two acres, five acres, or 10 acres of grapes, olive trees or any other crop needing irrigation – you can’t.
For the next two years, you can’t do much of anything on your property that will use more water than you’re currently using unless you can provide:
Evidence that the net new water demand (based on actual water data or by approved assumptions about the water demand for that use) has been offset (based on actual water data or by approved assumptions about the water demand for that use) at a ratio of at least 1:1 through verifiable evidence or participation in an Approved County Water Conservation Program. The offset must occur before, or at the same time as, the new water use is developed [Ordinance No. 3246 § 7(A)(1)(a)].
The expense of this process would likely be far too high for most rural residents and small growers.
On top of that, our property values are now plummeting. The land we can no longer farm is worth up to 90 percent less than it was just a few months ago. Our homes are worth far less because the wells aren’t viable, and there’s no solution in place to make them viable.
Immediate Action Is Needed for a Sensible Solution
We’ve seen years of drought, years of population growth and years of drawing from the basin with no governance in place. While we have had concerns with the UO, we should use the time it give us to find reasonable, long-term solutions to the problem. Solutions are what we need, and we need to be clear that the UO per se does not provide any solutions or relief to those experiencing well declines.
PRAAGS is currently circulating a petition to form a California water district and is urging landowners to join in the effort to put this idea to a vote of the people. We believe formation of the Paso Robles Basin Water District (PRBWD) is the best option for stabilizing and managing the groundwater basin, and for obtaining new water resources, essential to the long-term well-being and economic health of the North County.
The PRBWD is the best alternative for setting up an unbiased governance structure based on water usage. This idea requires individuals who use large amounts of water resources to proportionally pay for use. This approach works because it keeps costs commensurate with the comparably low water usage by rural residents while larger users would pay the bulk of the costs. Representation in the district would similarly follow this proportionality on the board of directors. This proportional approach is logical and compliant with State Constitution Prop 218 provisions and provides equitable representation for the costs being paid.
Some have suggested that one person/one vote is fair representation for a water district. While it may apply in many situations, especially in urban areas, it is not a fair approach for those bearing the greatest financial responsibility, nor does it qualify for voter approval of, as one example, bond measures for capital projects necessary to recharge the basin. If ag owners’ wells are healthy, their neighbors’ wells will be healthy.
PRAAGS is proposing a tiered structure for costs and governance of the PRBWD of 40 percent rural use and 60 percent ag use. This reflects the current makeup of the proposed water district. The California Water Code provides for this type of representation because it ensures much lower water costs for residents and is appropriate with the financial burden placed on ag.
The PRBWD complies with general plans and laws, allows for conserving and supplementing water, encourages responsible growth, supports property values, and sustains the livelihood of locals.
The Real Picture of Water Use
The grape-growing industry has been unjustly blamed for the current water predicament in North County. The perception is that increased acreage of vineyards over the past 30 years has led to higher use of water resources.
While it may be understandable to draw this conclusion, the reality of the situation doesn’t bear it out. There has been a substantial change in the type of crops grown in the region. In the early 1980s, field crops (alfalfa, barley and grains) represented the primary ag activity with approximately 60,000 acres. Irrigating these crops required between two and six acre-feet of water per acre annually.
Wine grapes, a major ag activity today, use approximately one acre-foot per acre. While acreage of vineyards has grown from 11,000 to 36,000, total annual water usage for agriculture has shrunk by an estimated 44.5 percent from 1981 to today.
With these numbers in mind, it is important to note that both rural residential and urban water usage has doubled since 1981. Rural residential usage has increased each year (excepting three years in which it remained constant), totaling an estimated increase of 151.4 percent. Urban usage has grown 104.3 percent.
(More information on this is available at www.praags.org.)
Safeguarding Our Water for the Future
What this means is that we all share the need for responsible management of our water resources.
Formation of the Paso Robles Basin Water District keeps water fees and resource management in the hands of locals and keeps prices low for rural residents. PRAAGS urges you to sign the petitions currently being circulated so there can be a fair and objective election for the formation of a water district.
With the Paso Robles Basin Water District, we can secure a sustainable and affordable solution for water.
We thank you.
Jerry Reaugh and Dana Merrill with Sereno Vista Vineyard Mesa Vineyard Management, Steve Sinton and John Crossland with Avenales Cattle Co. Vineyard Professional Services, Kent Gilmore and Steve Lohr with Golden Hills Farm J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, Kathleeen Maas and Matt Turrentine with Pear Valley Vineyard Grapevine Land Management.