Nuanced definitions muddy water debate

February 18, 2014

water bankBy DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE

San Luis Obispo County supervisors are preparing the framework for facilitating a North County-based water district even while advocates scramble to describe what such a district would, or could, do.

A widening rift over water rights to the Paso Robles basin, pitting agricultural and rural neighbors against one another, is morphing into a skirmish of semantics, the words “banking” and “exchanges” taking center stage. Those words are at the heart of disputes about eventual control and utilization of water from the basin, considered one of the largest aquifers west of the Rockies.

At the moment, the basin and its contents are essentially unregulated.

Leaders of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) have tried to make clear their contention that “water banking” and “exchanges” are not part of their plans in supporting formation of a district. But in doing so, their message has been garbled.

According to Wikipedia, “Water banking is the practice of forgoing water deliveries during certain periods, and ‘banking’ either the right to use the forgone water in the future, or saving it for someone else to use in exchange for a fee or delivery in kind. It is usually used where there is significant storage capacity to facilitate such transfers of water. In the United States, it is typically regulated and managed at the state level.”

“Exchanges” involve the transport of water supplies between two locations, such as a bank and a basin, probably through a pipeline or other physical conveyance facility.

Jerry Reaugh, PRAAGS chairman, last week termed as “conspiracy thinking” concerns of some local residents regarding the possibility of water banking in the North County.

“Those issues are almost silly when you think about them,” Reaugh said. “Folks can conjure up a conspiracy all they want, but this is not an area that lends itself to water banking.”

But only days later, other PRAGGS members were reported to be claiming in public forums that exportation of excess water from the Paso Robles basin during wet years for storage and use in the Paso basin during years of drought is “a good idea for the basin.”

That fits the classic definition of water banking.

One of those who reportedly made that assertion at a California Cattlemen’s Association meeting was Steve Sinton, a Creston rancher and vintner who serves as secretary of PRAAGS.

Asked about the accuracy of the comment, Sinton said, “I think I was talking about water we would buy,” he told CalCoastNews. “The State Water Project (SWP) has had some surplus years, and if you could bank it someplace and bring it here in a dry year, that would help the balance. We might be able to put it into the ground, but the easiest way would be to give it to farmers directly to use for irrigation. That would reduce the amount of pumping (from the basin).”

Sinton said such a practice “might look like a bank but it isn’t.” He then mentioned the Kern Water Bank as a possible destination for water headed to or from the Paso basin.

Sinton insisted that PRAGGS members “are not talking about exchanges; we are talking about buying water from one place and putting it wherever we have a shortage.”

Mike Ryan, a former District Five supervisor and a North County rancher, said he heard Sinton discuss water exchanges — physically moving water in or out of the basin in response to need or policy — on another occasion.

“I was at the Pear Valley [Vineyards] meeting January 22 and (Sinton) discussed exchanges in response to a question from the audience,” said Ryan. “He was very clear about the intentions.”

PRAAGS’s own website discussed exchanges in a positive way — until residents called attention to the reference and it was hastily removed.

Two weeks ago, the website, in its “question and answer” section, contained this sentence: “Except for temporary exchanges of water resulting in no diminishment of supplies, the District shall not export water from the Paso Robles groundwater basin.”

After the statement was called to the attention of county supervisors, PRAAGS’s public relations firm, Barnett Cox, changed the wording by removing the phrase, “Except for temporary exchanges of water resulting in no diminishment of supplies….”

Dave Cox of Barnett Cox said the alteration was made as part of PRAAGS’s “ongoing efforts” to prepare enabling legislation for the district.

County water officials have in the past lauded the potential for banking in the North County. In a 2008 report titled “Groundwater Banking Plan,” planners opine: “One alternative for utilizing allocation of San Luis Obispo’s state water may be via a groundwater banking program in the North County, since the Paso Robles basin is close to infrastructure with capacity to deliver the water.”

This year, all deliveries from the California Aqueduct have been completely curtailed amid a three-year dry cycle.

Storing water for dry years sounds promising as many communities in the county use only a small portion of water allotments during wet years, then are unable to get their full allotments during dry years. Communities in San Luis Obispo County rely on several water sources, including state water, Lopez Lake water and ground water.

Opponents of creating a water district controlled by corporate farmers argue this plan creates no new water sources, and instead puts several entities in place to manage and prosper at the expense of others.

As demonstrated in Kern County, privatized water can be extremely profitable for the few who control the district — and prohibitively expensive for others.

Stewart and Lynda Resnick

Stewart and Lynda Resnick

Several individuals involved in establishing a water district in San Luis Obispo County, the first step to water privatization, were involved in the creation of the Kern Water Bank — an underground water storage facility that is almost completely controlled by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick.

The Resnicks own the Roll International Corporation which is the parent company of Paramount Farms (the largest agribusiness corporation in California), Fiji Water, an almost 800 acre farm in Paso Robles, Justin Winery, and several other high-profile business entities. The powerful couple is also one of the largest donors to Democratic candidates in California.

In the late 1980s, the state Department of Water Resources decided to store water in Kern County’s underground basin to safeguard against drought. Taxpayers spent close to $100 million to preserve the reservoir and connect it to state water.

Then, in the early 1990s, water users including farmers and water districts began battling over rights to water in the Kern County basin. Amid threats of lawsuits from several users, the state transferred ownership of the reservoir to a small group of corporate farms which included entities owned by the Resnicks.

Because of that transfer, state water pumped into the Kern County basin is no longer a public resource, and becomes privately owned. Because of this, the owners of the Kern County Water Bank are able to purchase state water at a set rate, and then sell it to communities at almost double its cost. The result is that local governments pay more for water, with the eventual cost trickling down to its residents.

Though the Resnick’s sale of privatized water has contributed to their more than $2 billion fortune, the cash cow is in the sale of “paper water.”

California is contracted to deliver about 4 million acre feet of water a year, but generally is able to deliver only about half that and at times one fifth of what it is obligated to provide.

The remaining non-existent water is called paper water, expressed in the form of water entitlement certificates. And while these only exist on paper, it’s a high-priced commodity which can be bought and traded on the open market.

After a plan to build additional state project water pipelines was announced last year, Carolee Krieger, Executive Director of the California Water Impact Network , voiced her disapproval, contending the state should focus its resources on developing water sources and promoting conservation.

“The state should focus on conservation, recycling and developing local water sources,” Krieger said, noting the state project has been grossly over-committed. “Five times more water has been promised to water users for every drop that is available. There is no new water.”

Real estate developers in California are required to have a secure water source before projects can be approved. San Luis Obispo County developers have spent millions purchasing state water in order to demonstrate they have a reliable water source for their projects, water that often does not in reality exist.

In 2011, Larry Parsons spent $3.5 million purchasing 100-acre-feet of state water for his proposed 182-acre Pismo Beach development called Los Robles Del Mar. That project was later denied.

Several years ago, the $176 million dollar controversial Nacimiento Water Project pipeline was completed. While promoted by some San Luis Obispo County staffers and officials, opponents of the pipeline argued for a desalination plant, contending that during a serious drought there would be little water in the lake. Water levels at Nacimiento Lake are currently at about 25 percent.

(Updated Feb. 19 to reflect correct Nacimiento Lake water levels.)

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17 Comments

  1. Maxfusion says:

    Liquid carbon offsets brought to you by the Green Goblins. Remember the Goblin knows only one food source, your money.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. pasoman2 says:

    First words (Banking Water)
    That means Selling!
    Thank you San Luis Obispo County Board Of Supervisors,once again you have SOLD OUT
    The people of this county!!!
    Greed,Greed,Greed,Greed!!!!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  3. Pelican1 says:

    Here’s how the framework is conceived and constructed:
    !. Inflate the already over-inflated bureaucracy.
    2. Create yet another department of the county.
    3. Hire friends, family, and or individuals owed favors by county.
    4. Control all surface and ground water resources.
    5. Distribute said resources to biggest supporters.
    6. Appoint mayor’s to board who ONLY agree with county.visions
    7. Increase taxes.
    8. Increase staff.
    9. Ignore violators
    10. Create additional like sub-departments following above framework guidelines..

    .

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 3

    • kayaknut says:

      Well said, the only small correction is #9 – Ignore violators, to Ignore violators if they are the “right people” and attack those who are not on our side

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  4. LameCommenter says:

    OK, very nice work CCN. No big deal on the typo of Naci level.

    Krieger opposes the pipeline under the Delta because she’s an enviro. A short history and summary of SWP water versus (or conjoined with) groundwater supply might help:

    First, let me add some talk of water quality and dependability which the slow existing THRU-DELTA path HARMS.

    California has ALWAYS needed a way to more reliably pass potable water AROUND (a la the 1990′s failed Peripheral Canal issue) or UNDERNEATH (the new J. Brown proposal?) the muddy, silt-banked, collapse-prone Delta. This is old news but worth a repeat for some: If Boswell Farming hadn’t SUNK the 1990′s Peripheral Canal initiative with their advertising money, Central and So Calif would have had much LESS filtering of the cross Delta water. OK, just history, water stays cleaner when you don’t pump it across a bog and swamp like the Delta.

    As to cross delta collapse crippling the State Water Project, yes, with no other path, a major earthquake will collapse levees and southern calif will dry up as the Aqueduct pumps won’t be able to draw much water. Now, on to current issues: the PROPOSED water district IS a power grab compared with court adjudication of rights based upon historic pumping of water. Adjudication will establish an annual basin total yield, will set quotas for withdrawing water and the Johnny Come Lately vineyards are likely to be allowed to pump much LESS than now by using the old (first in time, first in right) water rights model.

    Yes, a judge and a government watermaster (to meter and enforce) is sure to be messy, but it beats handing all the power to the grape grower big/land owners with a district formation. They are the bad guys and have hugely overpumped the basin, no one can argue this with any sense or validity. Hard to figure how a populist majority on the BOS could go the “district” way, unless they are being purchased by big land interests. I can prove no such claim.

    Since adjudication will likely allow dry farm and cattle levels of pumping plus a bit more based upon WHAT the basin can FURNISH, OF COURSE the wineries INSTEAD want a water district under their voting land control. And your BOS appears to be moving that direction. Talk of “banking” is somewhat off topic, however it is valuable talk since it helps point out the powerful (i.e. selfish) interests that have pulled their shenanigans, and points out one of the additional malfeasances a district creation might empower.

    As to the panacea of other sources, I wish the fantasy of “additional sources” could make a glut of water for grape growers and TRULY there is slight, costly opportunity for reclamation/recycling of sewage for irrigating that Merlot, but as is, we face some tough issues forced on us common citizens by hundred horsepower vintner pumps. They made the fight, and I pray they lose it.

    The free lunch is OVER for the over pumping growers. Our duty lies in taming the overconsumption while protecting the small landowners from getting their affordable old wells pumped dry. A general public vote? An adjudication? The big acres in charge? ANYTHING but what the supes want !

    Hope this restatement helps, it’s difficult to condense such a big issue. Thanks for reading..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 0

    • Randy Sheila says:

      Should the County be more “heavy handed”, declare a state-of-emergency need, aggressively monitor and enforce? How or who else could perform this responsibility?

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

      • MaryMalone says:

        The county declaring an emergency for water resources is the ideal situation. Unfortunately, because of the 3/2 vote for starting the process for the formation of the water district, it is highly unlikely that the county supervisor’s to act responsibly, do their danged job, and keep the management of water issues at a board-of-supervisor’s level.

        By voting in favor of forming a water district, the county BOS basically abdicated their responsibility for managing our water resources to the State level, when it is far more logical, and I believe county residents would have a far better outcome, if management of our county water resources occurred at a more local (I.e., county) level.

        Water district’s are under State jurisdiction. The vote they had for the issue at the SLOC o Board of Supervisers level really meant nothing, except to give constituents a chance to see their supervisor’s stance on the issues related to formation of a water district and water issues and water rights in general.

        Kacho was going to introduce the bill to the State Legislature, no matter the outcome of the vote by the county supervisors.

        With Kacho, the motivations for his political actions can usually be ascertained by a follow-the-money-and-power strategy . I see no reason to believe his motivations are any different for introducing the water-district bill.

        The reason it would be far better for management of water resources to be at a county level is because voters/residents have easier access to their district supervisor’s than they do to representatives at a state level. More important, it is easier and less expensive to recall or vote out of office a representative at the county level, compared to at a representative at the state representative level.

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    • obispan says:

      “The free lunch is OVER for the over pumping growers”? Not if they get a water district they control.

      Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

    • MaryMalone says:

      I agree about the necessity of groundwater adjudication. That approach for the Nipomo Mesa was tedious and full of angst but, in the end, the process ended with a construct to (eventually) force at least the water-selling agencies to work towards sustainability of the water resources underlying the Nipomo Mesa.

      Unfortunately, about 25 per cent of the water users on the Mesa are individual well owners and they are not under any construct in the amount of water they pump from their wells.

      Some of these well owners are agricultural interests, and the Nipomo Mesa is still a largely unenforceable wild west when comes to agricultural water issues.

      Since the large local agricultural interest on the Mesa are extremely powerful, citations for water pollution are unheard of.

      The following is an example of how difficult it is to enforce government regulations for agriculture.

      The only case I know of that actually was cited by the county for unacceptable treatment of water ways in the Nipomo Mesa is the case of a case of a large and powerful grower that was leasing acreage from a historic large and powerful land owner. The land that was leased drained into the Nipomo Creek. There are regulations which absolutely forbid agricultural runoff and dumping of any kind into waterways.

      Despite these regulations, the grower allowed unimpeded irrigation runoff into the Nipomo Creek. This runoff included irrigation that contained water containing fertilizer. The fertilizer was the water-soluble “blue” type, similar to the “Miracle-gro” used by homeowners. The irrigation tubing actually ran to the edge of the creek so it could run off into the creek.

      The importance of it being a water-soluble fertilizer is that it did not have to be processed by soil like the non-water-soluble types (I.e., blood meal and chicken manure) require to become active. In other words, a large amount of immediately accessible water-polluting chemicals were regularly dumped into the creek , each time the fertilizing process occurred.

      Worse, there were no toilet facilities provided for the workers and you could actually see where workers had squatted down over the creek bed to take a dump. They then discarded the used toilet paper into the creek.

      County Environmental staff tried for years to address this situation, but could not get the support of their superiors to do it. Finally, Environmental staff turned to County Public Health and the grower was cited and fined…for $1000. The fine was revoked after the grower agreed to change their growing practices to meet regulations.

      So, while I believe adjudication is the best route to resolve large and powerful water issues, unless individual water well owners are included in the adjudication, it will only be a partial solution. But it is still better than having the County Board of Supervisors and State legislators (I.e., Kacho) force a water district which will put decisions about the future of the Paso GW basin into the hands of the powerful few.

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  5. pigsrule says:

    Are we getting the message yet? This is a power grab by SLO County and corporate cronies. And there’s even more information not being relayed regarding the fact when such a district is created, the state will have some say in it. We don’t under any circumstances want that. The water in the Paso Water Basin should stay there for its residence and farms … no more, no less.

    PS: The story has the wrong number for lake levels. San Antonio is at 5%, Nacimiento is currently 21%.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

    • MaryMalone says:

      I don’t see how this is a power grab by the supervisors when they have drop-kicked their responsibility, rights and benefits for managing Paso’s water resources to Kacho and the state-level political machine.

      The supes will be closely watched for any conflict-of-interest-laden benefits from the water district formation.

      The SLO BOS abdicating their power and responsibility of managing SLOCo’s water resources is already quite suspicious. What politician has EVER so easily and willingly given away power to another group of politicians?

      And the power that the BOD has given away, without a whimper, to Kacho and other state politicians involved in the formation of the water district, is considerable.

      Forming water districts is at the state level. Kacho and his elite special-interest supporters will profit from the formation of the water district. They will have the benefits from being able to influence key issues in the water district, as well as from placing individuals in key positions in the process of formation of the water district. Ultimately, Kacho and his key supporters who can profit from the water district will have control over much of what policies and people rule the water district.

      By giving the management of Paso the Paso groundwater basin to Kacho and his cronies, the SLOCo supervisor’s have basically guaranteed that the structure of the water district will profit the moneyed elites and NOT the individual residents living on smaller parcels with individual wells, or the residential “suburb”-type smaller-lot homeowners.

      Although the supervisor’s may benefit from increased donations in the upcoming elections, they will have to be very careful to avoid any appearance of quid-pro-quo payback in the form of contributions, appointments to plum political positions to themselves and/or their family/friends/lovers, etc.

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  6. despicableme says:

    “paper water”. unbelievable.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 0

  7. rigrhonda says:

    Fact check, please: Are you sure that Lake Nacimiento is currently at 5%? KSBY has it at something like 21-24%. I believe it is Lake San Antonio in Monterey County that is at about 5%.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  8. IronHub says:

    “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.” ― Mark Twain

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 17 Thumb down 0

  9. Jorge Estrada says:

    Just keep the water where nature put it and use it wisely. The Central Valley continues to dry up and it looks like they have a problem that can’t fix but obviously there’s money to be made. “It’s ok to say no to Stupidity”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

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