Court-supervised groundwater management
December 9, 2013
OPINION By CINDY STEINBECK
“Management” of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin is a hot topic. Our groundwater basin will be managed. The question and struggle is about who will manage and what rules will apply. California law offers fundamentally different options for groundwater management. I helped organize the Protect Our Water Rights group. We believe that court-supervised groundwater management is the most beneficial option for to landowners who would like to retain their water rights under California law.
The process began by filing “quiet title” — essentially requesting that a court recognize our water rights. Quiet title is the appropriate method for a landowner to protect property rights, including water rights. If someone was trying to take away a property right in another way, for example by walking or driving across a parcel or moving a fence over someone else’s parcel, everyone would understand the need to take the person to court to prevent the loss. Water rights are exactly the same, they need to be protected.
The county and cities are named in the filing. They have a full right to “disclaim.” Disclaiming would mean that the county and cities declare to the court that they are not claiming any “right, title, or interest” to our water rights. If the county and cities choose not to “disclaim” it would mean they are clearly trying to “claim a right”. If they do not disclaim then a court will then evaluate ‘rival claims’ and then, using information from neutral and unbiased technical experts, manage the supply and demand of the groundwater basin to ensure the health of the basin.
Court ordered management can include surface water importation and groundwater recharge, if necessary. Imported water will stay in the basin and not be sold outside the county. Once established, this form of management gives certainty to all water users, including those who sell water drawn from the basin. This long-range certainty is the principle advantage of court-supervised management. The Protect Our Water Rights group put this option on the table for all other landowners interested in retaining their rights.
The competing option is management by some governmental body. It might be the ‘California Water District’ that PRAAGS is petitioning to form. More likely the district will be a joint powers authority grouping the water district with the county, and the local municipal purveyors. Caution is needed with management by a joint powers authority because it can put power in the hands of people that were never directly elected by anyone. Whatever the details, it will be a governmental board that makes decisions. They can change their minds. They can charge taxes and fees. Nobody has any real long-term certainty.
Our group is convinced that court-supervised management of our water is preferable. We welcome landowners who think that our approach makes sense. Landowners would be wise to back away from the PRAAGS petition which seeks to form yet another governmental agency. Our county supervisors should put the brakes on their rush to a more robust AB-3030 management until they become better informed about the full implications of the management plan that they appear to support.
Cindy Steinbeck is owner of Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery. She is head of marketing and sales for their family businesses.