Paso water group wields major-league muscle
February 9, 2014
Eyes on your water: Second in a series of reports on the North County’s festering water politics. A list of the top 30 land owners over the Paso Robles aquifer is available below this story.
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Some of California’s biggest players in water politics have become influential figures in the leadership of a group vigorously promoting formation of a management district for the Paso Robles aquifer.
The heavy-hitting individuals possess a wide variety of legal and other professional connections to the inner structure of this state’s water industry. Blended with several of the North County’s most prominent vintners and ranchers, a unit has been formed that commands considerable political punch and resources.
One of the most prominent is Randy Record, an early adviser to individuals who would eventually form the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS). Record is first vice-chair of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD of Southern California), the world’s largest wholesaler of water.
Record’s primary agricultural interests are located in San Jacinto, where he’s a fifth-generation farmer, as well as vice-chairman of the Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD) there. He’s a 1976 graduate of Cal Poly; his family purchased the 100-acre Record Family Farms in San Miguel in 2007.
Record told CalCoastNews, “I don’t consider myself to be an advisor, just a member of PRAAGS and someone who has an interest in the area.”
Jerry Reaugh, owner of the 70-acre Sereno Vista Vineyard, is PRAAGS chairman, and he was effusive in praising Record’s participation with the North County group.
“Randy has been very instrumental in advising us,” said Reaugh. “He is extremely well connected, and we are lucky to have someone like that living among us.”
Part of Record’s current responsibility is to represent the Metropolitan Water District on the Southern California Leadership Council, where, according to the EMWD website, he “helps establish water policy.”
Record’s stint as president of the state’s most aggressive and potent water special interest group, the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), ended in January. That association represents more that 440 water districts selling 90 percent of all water delivered statewide. He’s co-chair of ACWA’s Statewide Water Action Plan, which is “planning for California’s water future.”
During the formative stages of another local action group dubbed PRO Water Equity (PWE), Record spent time “poking around” for information about PWE, according to several former PWE members.
Reaugh said many of the current PRAAGS members also are members of a Paso basin “blue ribbon” advisory committee now being phased out.
“It became clear that we needed to start taking action to deal with the area’s water issues, and I think it also became clear that what we needed was a water district,” Reaugh said. “That’s the tried and true way for rural areas to manage their water affairs.”
Asked how he came to be named chairman of PRAAGS, Reaugh laughed and said, “I’m probably the idiot that stood up.”
A Bakersfield attorney, Ernest A. Conant, a partner in the firm Young Wooldridge, has been appointed general counsel by PRAAGS. Conant represents water districts throughout the state, most notably the Kern Water Bank, whose principal owner is Paramount Farms Inc., a company owned by Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick.
Last year, Resnick added to his inventory the 740-acre Hardham Ranch on the outskirts of southeastern Paso Robles, and has converted it from dry farming and cattle grazing to newly-planted and well-irrigated wine grapes. Today, Resnick’s statewide agribusiness is among the richest in America, and he is by far the world’s most prolific producer of pistachios and almonds.
Among Conant’s legal accomplishments mentioned on his website include the fact that he “has served as general counsel for many different public agencies, including assisting with the development of the Semitropic and Arvin-Edison Water Storage District’s water banking programs, which temporarily store water for various agencies throughout the State.”
He was involved in the development and formation of the Kern Water Bank Authority and serves as its general counsel. Conant was a key figure in the implementation several years ago of the so-called Monterey Amendments, made among State Water Project contractors. That controversial move handed over state water rights to private entities and for the first time opened the door for sales and transfers of water supplies from state and federal conveyance projects.
“We’re very fortunate to have Ernie as counsel,” Record said.
Reaugh, asked if Conant’s experience with water banks and his subsequent engagement as general counsel of PRAAGS caused him concern at the outset, said after a long pause, “I’d have to say no.”
Reaugh then dismissed the concerns of some local residents regarding the possibility of water banking in the North County as “conspiracy thinking.”
“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.”
Steve Sinton, treasurer of PRAAGS, owns with his family the 125-acre Shell Creek Vineyards. He was raised on (and now runs) the family’s 12,000-acre Avenales Cattle Co. ranch, attending Shandon schools before graduating from Stanford. He earned his law degree from the University of Colorado in 1972.
After service in the Army, Sinton took a staff attorney’s post with the California Department of Water Resources for five years. He then returned to live at the Avenales Ranch but established a law practice in Sacramento, specializing in water and environmental law. Now he primarily manages cattle operations for Avenales. Until recently, he was chairman of the California Rangeland Trust.
Sinton’s extensive properties include the Shell Creek area, designated by a 2008 county study as one of three “selected recharge alternatives” for state project water project.
According to the final report of the Paso Robles Groundwater Sub-basin Water Banking Feasibility Study, “The locations of the (three) water banking alternatives evaluated in this study were identified primarily based on information describing the local hydrogeologic conditions.”
Media and marketing matters for PRAAGS are being handled by one of the county’s most recognized firms, Barnett Cox of San Luis Obispo.
Other PRAAGS board members are Dana Merrill, Mesa Vineyard Management; Kent Gilmore, Golden Hills Farm; John Crossland, Vineyard Professional Services; Steve Lohr, J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines; Matt Turrentine, Grapevine Land Management; and Kathleen Maas, Pear Valley Vineyards.
Next: A smaller citizens’ group, PRO Water Equity (PWE), finds common ground with PRAAGS, and a fortuitous melding of objectives occurs.
Large acreages dominate proposed district
Thirty property owners in the proposed boundaries of the Paso Robles water basin district own 68 percent of its total acreage — 146,622 of 215,000 acres. The top 15 of those individual property owners control more than 51 percent of the new district’s large owners’ voting capability.
There are approximately 5,000 owners of properties within the district.
Here’s how seats on a local water board would be allocated:
Three members elected on a one-person-one-vote basis by popular vote; two members elected by landowners owning fewer than 40 acres; two members elected by landowners owning between 40 and fewer than 400 acres; two members by those owning more than 400 acres.
Property owner Acreage
1. Farris Hillside LLC (Peck Ranch) 30,520.32
2. Emilee S. Morrison (Camatta Ranch) 21,748.88
3. Estrella Ranch LP De LTD (Hearst Ranch) 14,294.08
4. Johansing Farms LLC (Peter & Barney Johansing) 6,350.39
5. San Juan Ranch LLC (John & Brenda Stephenson) 6,111.90
6. West Bay Co LLC (Stephen TB Miller/Thornhill Co) 5,001.12
7. Estrella Ranch II LP (Hearst Ranch) 4,872.59
8. Pine Canyon Ranch GP (Donald Cavaletto) 4,301.82
9. Onderdon Family Trust 4,000.31
10. Kuhnle Properties Trust 3,212.88
11. Blech Ranch Co. LLC 3,014.46
12. Paul Clark 2,958.59
13. Jaureguy Land Trust 2,853.00
14. La Panza Ranch LLC 2,795.42
15. Stephenson Living Trust 2,786.12
16. Indeck Paso Robles LLC 2,500.24
17. William & Doris Land & Energy Co LLC 2,498.25
18. Anderson & Middleton Logging Co. 2,481.31
19. Odell Family Trust (survivors trust) 2,352.57
20. Brodiaea Inc. A Del Corp 2,292.64
21. Lewis Robert G. Family Trust (Exemption Trust) 2,267.11
22. Noel Martha 2,123.51
23. Jerold White Revocable Trust 2,004.50
24. Creston Enterprises LLC 1,971.96
25. Julie Johnson 1,824.02
26. Hillman Family Trust 1,649.68
27. McDonald Ranch Partnership 1,588.84
28. Lohr Family Vineyards LP 1,579.62
29. Timothy Testerman 1,421.71
30. Tannehill Ranch II LLC 1,254.30
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