A California water district: the best approach to manage our water crisis

November 18, 2013


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.

Your neighbors,

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.


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There is much in Mr. Reaugh’s opinion piece, as well as at the recent PRAAGS-sponsored meeting that is disingenuous and incorrect. The noted 44.5% reduction in the water use by ag from 1981 to present includes data that shows NO GROWTH in ag water use from 2009 to present, a period those of us living in the basin know was certainly a period of a great deal of growth in vine plantings. The data shows water use by ag as being stagnant. To be fair, the data also shows no growth in the rural residential use of water either, but since the building/real estate market plunged in October of 2008, a search of building permits shows that during the years since, there hasn’t been robust growth in that sector of the water users anyway. In any case, the data is suspect and so to tout the greatness of ag in reducing it’s water use is misleading if nothing else. Additionally, it is imperative that the people dependent on the basin’s water understand that the petition PRAAGS is preparing for a California water district depends not on 51% of landowners’s signature, but signatures of owners of 51% of the land. Currently, there are something like 36 owners with total holdings large enough to achieve this 51%. I’ll say it another way: if PRAAGS can convince just these 36 owners (or 40 or 50 or 60, to be conservative), some of whom are certainly not residents, are most possibly corporations and equally possibly international corporations, to sign their petition, it will move forward to its next step. And the balance of the landowners’s votes, numbering in the thousands, will mean nothing. That’s a pleasant thought for the future, when the Board of such a California water district, voted on in the same manner, makes decisions for ALL the stakeholders.

In listening to both sides of the issue, it appears that one side has presented some reasonable ideas and the other has some good ones too that are masked by their villainization of vineyards. Probably most think this is all about water. I think it is what just happened to all of us as landowners. Many of my neighbors have no idea that the Board of Supervisors put an ordinance in place that stops almost all new land projects that use additional water unless there is an offset to the new water use. Now we all are like the dog that just caught the car. Now what?

Just the other day, my neighbors said they were thinking about planting a small crop to supplement their income. When I told them about the ordinance and what it does they were stunned. They simply had no idea. Simply, none of us can do much with our land. Do we think this is going to go away any time soon? We all have a lot more in common than we think.

Most vineyards and other farmers will probably find a way to get through the water crisis. They have been doing this for decades as it is their livelihood. Ironically Wine Enthusiast just named our area as wine region of year for 2013. We should all feel good about that as it makes for a healthy local economy and it is the reason that many of us came to live here. Our properties are substantially more valuable here than land east of Cholame precisely because of this. Whether you have a vineyard, farm or raw land, we all benefit from the vineyard industry so why do we want to tear it apart?

Let’s get real. The political landscape changed dramatically with the death of Supervisor Teixeira. Do we really want to allow them to tell us what we can and cannot do with our land? How many times we should flush our toilets, or post “limit water use” in our hotel rooms. This is no way to live and we don’t have to. The only way out from under the ordinance is a water district run by us. One side has sensible solutions and the other seems to be stalling for time so that the Supervisors will tell us what to do.

For me I don’t want to see my property values at Cholame levels nor do I want to see this area turn into the Simi Valley. And I don’t want to be told how to live by no/slow growth politicians in San Luis Obispo.

Lastly, after reading some of the comments above, I am always amazed at how some people can wind up hating someone they don’t even know. How will we ever solve this with such behavior?

Anyone buying land in North County in the last 25 years should have known there was a heightening water crisis brewing. This has been talked about at City Council meetings and County Supervisor meetings regularly and has been reported in the news regularly. At some point it had to come to a head and that point is now. Nobody in the ag community has any excuse for being surprised. Your own organizations and publications have routinely discussed the tightening water issue in the North County. Just admit you all turned a deaf ear and continued planting vines for your own personal greed waiting for the shoe to drop knowing you would be able to keep, at least for now, all you planted.

Do you really expect anything else from Him or his group? They are cutting backroom deals and are lining up the basin to be plundered by outside interests. The most remarkable thing about the outside interests are that they are seated on his board and he thinks that they are a small player here in Paso. I dont know if he actually ever leaves town or has any knowledge of global business and/or the water business. The crime that is happening is much above his paygrade, so maybe we can’t be too hard on him.

When we are all realing from the damage of these actions, and many of the post mortem assessments are completed, I wouldnt be suprised if these guys/gals are run out of town.

This is a sad time to live in this town.

What if there were only two owner/stakeholders in the basin, one who owned 99,999 acres and one who owned 1 acre. Would would it be fair for each owner to have the same “share” of the water — or decision making about the water — in this instance?

If if’s and butts were candy and nuts….

The problem is we know when vineyards are planted the surrounding neighbors’ well levels drop. This means the vineyard is taking more than its fair share of water. The idea you are allowed to pump all the water you can from wells on your land just because the wells are on your property is ludicrous. Water basins do not recognize property lines so your well can pump my water out of the ground if you over-pump. Until the ag community comes to grips with this concept, that any forth grader can understand, i.e., quit turning the blind eye because of greed, the ag community is in for a bumpy ride because this time the ag community is on the wrong side of right.


The point of my hypothetical inquiry is to show the inherent unfairness of a one-man/one-vote paradigm in this situation. One man with one acre has less vested interest than one man with 1000 acres. He also has less claim to this shared resource.

Now, we can debate all day that it is unfair that one man could possibly amass one thousand times more wealth than another (as measured in land), but that’s really not the point, is it.

The point is that each production unit (acre) uses water. Those who control more production units ought to control more water.

Racket – Utter nonsense. You know water for individuals is going to take precedent over ag. That is the way it has to be in a restricted water area. Your claim of the biggest land holder should hold all the cards is ridiculous. You are just greedy, greedy, greedy. You can not expect an area along one of two major north-south freeways in California not to grow in population at the expense of ag. Take a look from San Diego to Santa Barbara and Salinas to San Francisco. Seriously, you are beating a dead horse because we are a water restricted area in the North County. Unless you can create more water out of thin air you have no logical argument, just the warped wishful thinking that the biggest land holder should control the water. This issue is not going your way.

–” Your claim of the biggest land holder should hold all the cards is ridiculous” —

I am making no such claim. I am claiming that all landowners should hold “cards” in direct proportion to the land they own.

OK, to be precise, the land holders hold all the cards.

You seem to have a mental block here. You are not entitled to pumping all the water you can from wells on your land, period. In fact what should happen and probably will happen is that everyone will be put on a water meter including the ag wells.

Clearly, your concept that land owners (ag) should decide who gets how much water is designed for one reason and one reason only, so ag can still take more than their fair share.

I think our disagreement surrounds ag’s (or anyone else’s) “fair share.”

The water basin is in overdraft. Everyone needs to CUT BACK. This includes ag. However, ag wants to position itself as the decider of future water allocation as though there is additional water to allocate, or more jokingly, as though ag would be fair about future water allocation if it were in charge. Ag needs to get their collective head out of thin air and back on the ground. Ag should have acted years ago, but instead turned a blind eye and now wants to act surprised and disenfranchised over what is happening today. You made your bed.


Another way to look at it is that the smallholders have historically been using more than their “fair share” of water. The two acre feet I use on my one acre home was not a problem until my large neighbor wanted to use 200 acre feet on his 100 acre parcel.

Two acre feet of water is 652,000 gallons. I doubt you use that much on one acre. 57% of water used by homeowners is for landscaping. That number is going to have to be reduced significantly in the future for the North County. Just the reality. I am sure many homeowners will not like being forced to get rid of grass, etc., but it will be the reality just as cutting back for ag will be a reality in the North County’s future.

Use whatever number of gallons per acre you want, but fairly apply it to big acreages and small acreages.

The factoring should take into account the number of residences first, regardless of parcel size. That’s one number. Then factor in the balance of the water use per parcel for irrigation. That’s the number that’s really at issue—not household use.

Jerry Reaugh, of PRAGG, what you write is utter nonsense. You wrote:

“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.”

What selfish world do you and your PRAGG buddies live in? Apparently, it is the world of we are entitled to more than our fair share of water and you better believe nonsensical crap like, “If ag owners’ wells are healthy, their neighbors’ wells will be healthy.”

The Vineyard owner has the money to drill the 800ft deep well, but the homeowner doesn’t, so the ag well depletes the homeowners’ wells. That’s fair?

I would agree with your proposal with a slight modification. The ag well can only be as deep as the homeowners’ wells in the area and if the ag well needs to go deeper than the ag pays for sinking all the homeowners’ wells deeper. This is just as fair as your proposal, don’t you think so, Jerry?

I would like to pose just one (1) simple question to the PRAGGS folks. I will be checking back over next few days to see their answer.

Based on the facts? that are in this opinion, it can only be concluded that PRAGGS believes that the major (if not only) reason for the depleted aquifier is population growth (both rural and urban).

My question – How does PRAGGS propose to solve this population growth without being in total opposition to state, county, and city plans of growth, growth, and more growth?

Paso Robles alone is planning on an increase of ~15K more citizens by 2025.

FYI – I am not in favor to having the water issue goverened by those who own the most land. This is same as letting the foxes control the lock on the henhouse. Chickens ain’t got a chance.

I attended the PRAAGS open house last week and noted their reference to the Fugro studies. A simple Google search lead me to the reports titled “Paso Robles Groundwater Study Phase I & II and the Final Report done for the SLO County Public Works Department.They are long and technical but I did find the appropriate charts and data.

After plodding though all of the reports, the data presented at the PRAAGS open house is accurate. I guess you can cherry pick the data and exclude or include some of it to make it come out to suit a particular agenda. I simply looked at it as Fugro presented it. Anyone is free to do the same. So the facts are our city’s populations are growing; we have more rural residents and vineyard acreage has increased. However, irrigated agriculture’s portion has not grown by as much because of lot of the irrigated land over the few decades has been converted over to crops that use drip.

A lot of folks I talk to are convinced that we are not going to just be able to reply upon limiting how much we all pump to solve this issue. We have three rivers, reservoirs and government water projects all passing through our Basin; not a drop of which stays here. The larger point here is that we all have a stake in the outcome and we need to begin to address the supply issue. Detractors do a good job of asking a lot of questions. What I don’t hear from them are a lot of solutions.

An independent water district will have the power of all us who live in the basin to deal with state and local agencies for a fair share of this water. That is the key to getting our Basin back into balance.

The other 500 pound elephant in the room is the City of Paso Robles. They have “straws in our Basin pumping 24/7/365 as an appropriator of our water to sell to their citizens as we speak. All as they announce two large development projects that will in some measure use water from the Basin. How sensible is this in light of what is going on?

The PRAAGS writer is simply pursuing his/her own interests, nt what is best for the general public or the aquifer. It is difficult for a property rights person such as myself to say this, since I’m so far right I think Ayn Rand wrote like a Socialist, but my rural holdings have relied on wells for a long time, I used to own in the Basin though not now, and have a small background in fresh and reclaimed water distribution, and (my dubious credentials thus propounded), I would beg to opine:

The ag people have viciously overused the resource. This is not disputable. Since we don’t have a large amount of reclaimable wastewater and little chance of developing more, they’ve gotta stop before their race to the bedrock drilling and extraction leaves the average citizen dry and pushed out.

The proposal of the PRAAGS writer will not accomplish this, it’s a bunch of tripe. I hate to say it but when one group overtaxes a resource and there isn’t much more to develop, it has to stop at once or better, turn the clock back several years.

Sorry, PRAAGS, but your industry brought this upon itself. All of us with 1920’s family connection to the North County can recall the dry farmed region as it was. Your rapacious overuse has positioned us all to have to cut you off.

Looking for sources of additional water for the basin is a worthwhile objective. What the author fails to tell the reader is also worthwhile to note.

A California Water District has the power to develop, and implement the acquisition of additional sources of water. It can levy fees to the members of the district to fund these projects. However, it has no power to limit water usage, restrict development of additional water uses or monitor existing use.

Water continues to be a very serious issue throughout California and the western states. Formation of a water district does not guarantee that water will become available or, if it is available, that it will be a steady, reliable supply. One has only to look at the water levels in reservoirs throughout the state to see that we have a statewide problem with our water supply. Statewide demand for water is increasing and we are not the only parties interested in getting a share of that finite resource.

We need to come up with a plan that that seeks additional sources of water while at the same time monitors and manages water usage so that there is a water supply that remains available for all the stakeholders for many years to come.

“The grape-growing industry has been unjustly blamed for the current water predicament in North County.”

I disagree. The millions of grape vines in North County may not be the only thing causing the “current water predicament” but they’re sure not helping the situation.

Paso’s not Napa. Napa gets an average of 27 inches of rain a year; Paso Robles’ average is FAR less, even in non-drought years. The grape-growing industry wants to keep planting grapes Napa-style…despite the fact that we’re in an arid region w/a Mediterranean, dry climate.

Also the PRAAGS proposal is clearly against one vote per stakeholder and that seems OK if you’re a big winery like J Lohr, but not so great if you’re a smaller landowner.

I will never support the urgency ordinance. This is not a clean and sober decision for a number of reasons. One, it is not the right time to have a rational discussion about water. Two, the Paso Robles Ground Water Basin is a bogus target. Three, it is a taking with no compensation or mitigation.

Shame on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors for their irresponsible use of power. Filling the empty tanks normally supplied by a legal well seems to be a generous enough use of taxpayer funds. Enacting an ordinace to socialize private water rights is about creating a new revenue stream, not water.

This will affect EVERYONE, the Basin is just the test grounds. It is very selfish to think that you are exempt and when it does, everyone else will be funding the opposition to your ( what are they doing to me) legal battle.

i wouldn’t tumble on this one. more power to the State? hahahahaha nooooooo. why don’t we just hand it over to the Feds, then? wouldn’t that be better?