A crafted perception of water district ‘cooperation’
May 24, 2014
Eyes On Your Water: Third in a series of reports on the North County’s festering water politics.
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A surprise voting maneuver — engineered by its leader — divided a local landowners’ group and greased the skids for a plan to create a controversial water district regulating use of the Paso Robles basin.
Sue Luft’s gambit proved successful, and combined with a well-financed public relations campaign has helped create an illusion of widespread community support for the water district’s formation.
Luft, a onetime Bakersfield engineer, is chair of a small group of people dubbing themselves Paso Robles Overliers for Water Equity (PRO Water Equity). It launched in March 2013 with the stated intent of representing viewpoints and legal rights of owners of property atop the North County aquifer. Its current membership numbers four.
Its website describes PRO Water Equity as “a diverse all-volunteer coalition of Paso Robles groundwater basin users who believe in finding a fair way of sharing the groundwater that belongs to all of us, (and we are) supported by winery and vineyard owners, olive growers, other agriculturalists and many, many rural residents who overlie the basin.”
That does not reflect PRO Water Equity’s current actions and objectives, according to former members.
Sheila Lyons was one of the group’s original members, all of whom shared a common goal, or so Lyons thought:
“Our group worked on a lot of projects,” she said, “and I thought we were all on the same page in that we all believed that water is a common resource. We thought management for the good of everyone was the way we wanted to go. So we started out advocating for the kind of basin management that we needed, and could support.”
Then last summer news surfaced of the formation of another North County water group calling itself the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS). The emergence of this small but mighty coalition, representing large vineyard owners and ranchers, wine industry professionals, water attorneys, and other politically-connected individuals, caused concern to the members of PRO Water Equity.
Luft noted with alarm PRAAGS’s startup on PRO Water Equity’s website, and the two groups, with diametrically opposing agendas, became overnight adversaries.
“We knew that a California water district was not what we wanted,” Lyons said, but “we also worried that the whole thing (management of the basin) might have to be thrown into adjudication.”
Hoping to avoid a political confrontation jeopardizing the objectives of PRAAGS leadership, First District County Supervisor Frank Mecham proposed a “summit meeting” between members of both groups.
Lyons, Luft and Jan Seals attended the meeting in Mecham’s office and asked the PRAAGS representatives to alter their emerging position calling for formation of a so-called “hybrid” water district with power vested in the area’s largest landowners.
“We all knew that plan would not fly with our members. Not at all,” said Lyons.
Then, into this fermenting political brew stepped local vintner Cindy Steinbeck, filing a lawsuit seeking to protect water rights under her 500-acre vineyard.
According to Lyons, “It was at that point that Luft decided that we needed to get ahead of this, that we couldn’t let the lawsuit take over the discussion. It was that, and other reasons that we are yet unaware of, that made her flip so quickly.”
The fledgling PRO Water Equity group was in the process of discussing selection of its board of directors when members learned of Steinbeck’s lawsuit.
Luft called a meeting at her Templeton home of the “policy committee,” and she required that each of the nine attendees deny any affiliation with Steinbeck, and attest that they had no part of Steinbeck’s lawsuit.
One of the policy committee members, Sue Harvey, admitted to Luft that she had discussed the lawsuit with Steinbeck. According to others present, Luft then demanded Harvey leave the meeting.
The remaining members were asked to consider cooperating with PRAAGS, even though a majority disagreed its objectives, including the concept of the new district dominated by large landowners.
The first vote of the policy committee on that question was five against the proposal, three for. This irritated Luft, according to several of those present, and she then called for a vote involving only the board members present at the time. This vote was three for cooperation, two against.
The two groups, PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity — with a total combined membership of about one dozen — were thus joined at the hip, with access to deep pockets and influential backers.
After she subsequently said she couldn’t support the cooperative proposal, Lyons said she was excluded from further meetings of PRO Water Equity.
“From that point on the other dissenters were totally shut out of discussions,” Lyons added.
Most of the members of the policy committee then resigned, among them Lyons, Harvey, Della Barrett, Diane Jackson, and Maria Locha.
Luft said Friday, “It was the wish of the board. It was a board decision, so that was what we went with.”
The newly-formed partnership between of PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity has since bonded behind support of proposed legislation to create just the kind of water district Luft, a short time ago, said she vociferously opposed — an agency formed and controlled by the region’s largest landowners.
And it is the resulting perception of unified community support, according to Assemblyman Katcho Achadijan, (R-San Luis Obispo), that prompted him to sponsor AB 2453, creating a hybrid water district based on big acreage ownership.
He first said he would carry the bill only if county supervisors concurred, but eventually introduced AB 2453 even after the board split 3-2 on backing the proposal. That bill barely passed its first committee test May 7 after being scoured by the Legislative Counsel to determine its constitutionality. It now heads for the Assembly floor, where a vote will take place before the end of this month.
Testimony by the bill’s promoters before the Assembly Local Government Committee keyed on one particular unsubstantiated assertion — that Achadjian’s bill enjoys widespread support from the thousands of residents living within the proposed district’s yet-to-be-determined boundaries.
Who is Sue Luft?
Luft, 53, partners with her husband Karl in managing a 10-acre Templeton vineyard, and in an environmental engineering company the pair brought with them they moved from the Central Valley.
When she applied for the county’s Water Resources Advisory Committee in 2007, Luft described herself as “semi-retired” and noted her membership in virtually every water related organization around: president of North County Watch, and belonging to a variety of other groups, including the Central Coast Vineyard Team; Central Coast Ag Network; Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County; Independent Grape Growers of Paso Robles; Sierra Club; Nature Conservancy; Templeton Chamber of Commerce; and Citizens Concerned For Templeton’s Future.
She also was appointed to the county’s Blue Ribbon Committee for the Paso Robles Groundwater Management Plan.
But it is Luft’s associations in the Bakersfield area that has the resigned members of her PRO Water Equity policy committee troubled.
Luft said her engineering company’s “many clients” have included “numerous” water districts, oil companies and other entities — and the Kern Water Bank Authority. The Authority is steered by Paramount Farms, one of the nation’s largest agricultural conglomerates, and in turn controls most of the water supply for the Central Valley.
Paramount Farms is part of Roll Global, a holding company wholly owned by Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick, who in turn recently purchased the 700-acre Hardham Ranch on the southeastern outskirts of Paso Robles. That land, formerly dry-farmed, now hosts new grape plantings and is heavily irrigated, and boasts two large above-ground lined reservoirs.
Luft said she “didn’t even know the Resnicks were going to buy it (the Hardham Ranch) until they did. I don’t know why they bought that property. It’s crazy.”
Her work for the Kern Water Bank Authority consisted only of environmental assessments, she said, adding that she found it “distressing” that onetime friends are viewing her professional affiliation with a Resnick business with suspicion.
They have raised the possibility of a link between Resnick, Kern County Water Bank, water transfers, and the yet-to-be-defined powers of the proposed Paso Robles water basin district.
“Those allegations are entirely false,” Luft said, her voice cracking. “No one can control the [proposed] board as it is now described. I can’t believe it… those are people who used to be my friends. I’ve known them for years. For them to suggest some kind of conspiracy is just bizarre. It’s been a lot of work to reach a compromise,” she added, “but there are people who philosophically will never believe in compromise.
“I cannot get across to these people that they have lost their sense of reality. They want to just stand on the sidelines and yell. Their wish for a one-parcel, one-vote system is not fair. But the hybrid board is fair to everyone.”