Is water banking in SLO County’s future?

January 27, 2014

Semitropic004Eyes on your water: First in a series of reports on the North County’s festering water politics.

By DANIEL BLACKBURN

Little San Luis Obispo County is poised to become a major player in the West’s high-stakes water future, even while local land-owning water users fret about declining supplies stressed by an increasingly voracious agricultural thirst.

Meanwhile, strategies of a variety of county water users — their anxieties exacerbated by a deep and persistent drought — are competing for control of the biggest component of this county’s water storage capability, the Paso Robles water basin.

And now, the basin — the largest aquifer west of the Rockies — is being considered by some powerful entities for utilization as a “water bank.”

It is an objective that cannot be realized without creation of a special water district, plans for which are gaining a considerable head of political steam. A district’s formation would necessitate enabling legislation, now being contemplated for sponsorship by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo). Such a district is favored by two area groups which recently merged their objectives, the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) — representing the biggest vineyards overlying the Paso Robles groundwater basin — and PRO Water Equity.

PRAAGS legal representation is being provided by Ernest Conant, a lawyer for the controversial Kern Water Bank in the Central Valley.

Consensus on local water banking is thin; some North County landowners are balking at the idea of establishing a water district, fearing that special interests are fast-tracking legislation to prevent any future intervention in North County water-rights conflicts by the courts. Two local lawsuits have been filed in an attempt to protect existing rights of current landowners, and to assure those rights carry into the future.

A plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, Cindy Steinbeck, said in an email to members of an overlying landowners group, Protect Our Water Rights (POWR), that representatives of the two bigger entities, PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity, may not be revealing the whole story.

“What they are not disclosing [about plans for a district and the legislation] may seriously impact your property rights, as well as the financial value of your property,” Steinbeck wrote. “We must stand together to protect our groundwater rights.”

Steinbeck said in a later conversation with a reporter that leaders of PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity “cannot seem to tell the truth” about plans for water banking in this county.

“I’m certain that at least one person in each group knows exactly what is going on,” she said, “and many of the rest are completely naive.”

At a Pear Valley Vineyard meeting last week,  members of PRAAGS admitted they seek in the legislation “exporting” powers and plan to do “water exchanges” with a Central Valley water bank, Semitropic Water Storage District.

Wider needs, less water

In concept, the idea of capturing water during wet years and saving it to use for homes, farms, ranches, and businesses during a dry spell sounds like it makes fiscal sense.

In reality, a water bank can create circumstances jeopardizing unsuspecting landowners who believe they have the rights to the water under their property.

Conservation measures of some sort are becoming increasingly important, because diminution of the above-ground resource parallels statewide urban and rural population expansion, and agricultural and industrial demands are increasing.

In prior decades, overland transfer was the preferred method of moving water from one location to another. But dams, reservoirs, canals, pumping plants, and other delivery infrastructure now are mere remnants of a past where “abundance” of the resource was a commonly-held misperception.

Even without a serious drought, evidence of a rapidly-shrinking water supply in the western United States is abundant: the combined capacities of the Colorado River, the state’s northern watersheds, the Central Valley Project, the Owens River and California aqueducts, cannot deliver one-fifth of the promised, and contracted-for quantities.

With more eyes on less water today, novel ways to develop, store, sell, and deliver water are being sought.

Banking is a system that makes it possible for water-rights holders to store water underground in aquifers for future use, but it also creates the potential of sale or lease of those water rights to distant destinations.

Why would the North County water basin, already over-utilized, stir the lust of any outside interest?

For advocates of a water banking future, it is simple: They perceive this county’s subterranean water vault, though increasingly bereft of actual supply, like wizened old prospectors surveying an empty moonscape mountainside and correctly concluding, “There’s gold in them thar hills.”

In this case, the “gold” is in storage capacity. Even if water in the Paso Robles basin continues to decline, the basin essentially remains a priceless resource repository, the kind that is bound to attract attention from beyond county borders.

It’s a snowballing profit potential that makes this basin the object of many covetous desires.

Evidence of outlying interest in the basin was suggested when the venerable Hardham Ranch, located on the southeastern edge of the city of Paso Robles, was sold to Roll International, the Southern-California based holding company owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick of Beverly Hills. The ranch has for years been used for grazing and dry-farming.

But Stewart Resnick, 74, a UCLA law school alumni who has amassed an estimated personal fortune of $2 billion, had other ideas for the land, and for the water rights under that land.

Resnick purchased the ranch in 2011 and began a massive vineyard planting and irrigation project spanning its entire 750 acres, despite widely-recognized groundwater deficiencies in the region. Few country residents, save those whose properties were close to the property, voiced much concern. Few, as it happened, had ever heard of the Resnicks.

That probably won’t be the case in the near future.

A reckoning force

The Resnicks own a majority of the Kern Water Bank through their Paramount Farms, one of the nation’s largest agribusiness corporations. As part of that enterprise, their Central Valley farms produce huge harvests of pistachio nuts. They also own FIJI Water, Justin Winery, and other high-profile business entities.

Resnicks’ stranglehold on the Kern Water Bank is the unintended consequence of several historically-questionable decisions made by state water officials over the past 15 years. The bank was acquired after the state transferred Californians’ ownership of the bank to a Central Valley joint powers authority controlled, at least in part, by Resnick’s companies.

Among other fiscal benefits, according to a July 2011 article in the New York Times, the agreement authorized, for the first time, “permanent sales of water by and between State Water Project contractors, creating a new private water market.”

The notion of water banking in the past, reported The Times, “has been widely embraced as a tool for making water supplies reliable, sustainable and marketable. Groups traditionally at odds —  environmentalists seeking full rivers for fish, and farmers tending pistachio or pomegranate trees — agree that water banking is a useful strategy for managing a vital resource.”

But pristine as the intention might be, the business of water banking is not always conducted with the resource’s highest and best use in mind.

The Times reported that “pumping out huge amounts of (Kern Water Bank’s) stored water in dry years was thought to have little impact on the underground geology. But now engineers believe it reversed the area’s underground hydraulic gradient, turning a hill-shaped water table, accessible by shallow wells, into a valley. The trigger for the huge withdrawals was a drought that began in 2007. Kern County’s allocation of water from Northern California was cut. Then, in the 40 months beginning in March 2007, roughly half the banks’ capacity was pumped out to keep fruit and nut trees alive.”

Resnick’s farm company produces the world’s largest harvest of almonds and pistachios, both water-intensive crops, both grown in the semi-arid but richly-irrigated soil of Central California.

Roll International’s lawyers have been squaring off against a phalanx of lawsuits and ongoing water bank-related legal problems, and have found the efforts of a San Francisco lawyer named Adam Keats to be particularly nettlesome. Keats, senior counsel for the Center for Biological Diversity, heads the center’s California Water Law Project, aimed at seeking long-term solutions to freshwater delivery in California.

Keats told The Times that the Kern Water Bank was the result of a “back room deal by a cabal” of agricultural barons “that has produced an environmental nightmare, depleting fresh water in the Bay-Delta region; contributing to over-irrigation, groundwater depletion, and the buildup of selenium in the soils of the San Joaquin Valley; and threatening the habitats of endangered fish and wildlife.”

It all means, he told The Times, that “All this to serve the god of profit rather than the public good.”

He predicted a similar fate for the San Luis Obispo County region if water banking is initiated.

“What will probably happen is that the entire water supply will end up controlled by a few powerful people whose interests are not the same as those of most of your residents,” Keats told CalCoastNews in a recent interview.

Disputing the premise of a degraded supply caused by heavy agricultural pumping, Conant, the Kern Water Bank lawyer now locally involved with PRAAGS, told The Times he disagreed that the “rapid pumping caused the well problems in west Bakersfield, or that environmental reviews, in failing to anticipate the problem, were inadequate.”

Conant’s client Resnick rarely responds to media interview requests. But in November 2010 the billionaire told Bloomberg Businessweek that he regarded those lawsuits plaguing his Kern Water Bank as “a nuisance,” commenting, “If I think I’m right, I don’t care what people say. It’s their problem.”

(Next: “Paper water” may someday “fill” the basin’s water bank, and some visionaries will be getting very rich.)







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  1. IronMan says:

    Dan,

    You hit this one on the head. The feds have openly admitted in white papers that the Paso Robles GRB is the largest west of the Rockies and would be ideal for a GWB bank for all of California. The first step according to the federal government is the establishment of an irrigation district over the GWB – wonder who is pushing this concept behind the scenes. Take a look at the white paper and you will see who is behind this and what local idiots have jumped on the band wagon thinking a district is the solution to our problems and to effective water management.

    Great article Dan

    (7) 7 Total Votes - 7 up - 0 down
  2. MoreDams says:

    Folks, PLEASE do your homework! We HAVE excellent, common-sense, efficient “water banks” already in the US: they’re called DAMS! They are the best water management tools available: storing known quantities of water in wet years and maintaining level supplies in dry years. UNLESS–someone has a big-money/big power interest in removing them; creating artificial shortages, and controlling everyone’s water. You cannot solve a problem when you use false information or selective information spoon-fed by those who are really running the show with a far more insidious agenda. They know that giving false information to both sides of an issue will only incite more chaos and hostilities, which presents the ideal opportunity for them to step in and entrench their own agenda and power–to the ultimate detriment of ALL sides. I’m not talking about the Resnicks, or the “boogeyman” of Big Agro; who are also just pawns in this bigger agenda for the UN to remove dams and control our lives by controlling our water. Look at this article and especially the UN map of the US http://www.rangemagazine.com/specialreports/05-fall-taking-liberty.pdf
    All of California’s water (yellow and red areas) is now under the sole jurisdiction of the UN, which is engaged in an aggressive campaign to remove all dams in CA (over 300 and counting); which is the REAL reason for the water shortages. See this article (and keep googling the subject): http://www.mrc.org/media-myths/americas-big-dam-problem As stored water in dams is eliminated, of course they want to replace it with the stored water UNDER YOUR PRIVATE LAND: This is where both small land owners, farmers, the Resnick’s and ALL Americans should be uniting together to fight this very real threat to all Americans private property as well as the right to control your own financial destiny. The UN is already seizing farm lands in northern CA due to the dam removal program in progress there. Central and So Cal are next, folks. See http://www.DefendRuralAmerica.com; a coalition of CA of farmers (big ones, too) desperately fighting to save their land, their farms, and their livelihoods. Then, attend any of the meetings organized by the LA group American Freedom Alliance.org and get educated and get in the real fight!

    (-1) 11 Total Votes - 5 up - 6 down
    • Citizen says:

      http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/06/22/us-usa-dam-california-idUSBRE95L02Q20130622

      The key sentence in this article is this:

      “Groundbreaking on the San Clemente removal follows federal recommendations to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in Oregon and California to resolve water allocation disputes and restore habitats for Coho salmon and other fish.”

      The San Clemente dam that is being removed was considered unsafe, but how many of us knew that 4 dams on the Klamath River were going to be removed by the feds? Actually, I agree that these dams should be removed because of ag greedsters sucking the river dry and being indifferent to the results, but it is an indication of what could happen in the rest of Ca. For some strange reason, the Feds don’t consider hydroelectric plants a renewable energy.

      What a joke on the city of Paso if the Nacimiento Dam is removed after we paid for the water and the piping and haven’t been able to use the water because the water treatment plant hasn’t been built yet.

      (0) 4 Total Votes - 2 up - 2 down
  3. SuperDave says:

    The Resnicks are up to no good. The Valley learned it the hard way. Chinatown is their favorite movie, for good reason- they got the plan for free.

    (7) 9 Total Votes - 8 up - 1 down
  4. Citizen says:

    Here is a copy of the water banking feasibility report:
    http://www.prcity.com/government/departments/publicworks/water/pdf/GBMP/reports/WaterBankingFeasibilityStudyApr08.pdf

    (4) 4 Total Votes - 4 up - 0 down
  5. MaryMalone says:

    We should fight any attempts to store water from outside of the original GW basin of origin in any of the GW basins upon which we depend for potable water.

    This is especially true of the Central Valley basin system, which is polluted in many areas by industrial pollutants, pesticides and highly dangerous toxins.

    (10) 14 Total Votes - 12 up - 2 down
  6. MaryMalone says:

    A risk of overdrafting a GW basin is reducng the amount of water the basin will be able to hold in the future.

    The Central Valley has experienced this in many areas. Some of the areas of land subsidence are over 50 feet.

    In areas of land subsidence, the overdrafted and collapsed portion of the GW basin will never be again able to store groundwater.

    The water robber barons are taking huge risks, the outcome of which will be felt the most by those of us who can least afford it.

    Our nation’s natural resources–including our water resources–are for ALL Americans, in past, present and future generations, and not just for the gluttonous few who can afford buy enough lawyers to steal the water rights from the rest of us.

    (12) 18 Total Votes - 15 up - 3 down
  7. Truth says:

    http://youtu.be/Hydg6cvls88 Watch this short KSBY news story from 2008 featuring technology that reclaims and re-purifies 100% of EVERY household/building/facilities’, polluted/sewage discharges. This technology was “federally mandated” to be used to protect our valuable drinking water resources from pollution decades ago, yet has been ‘swept under the rug’ by San Luis Obispo & Santa Barbara County Supervisors and your friendly Regional Water Quality Resources Control Board.

    We are wasting MILLIONS OF GALLONS OF WATER every single day when we could be saving and recycling ALL that precious water. San Luis Obispo County is dumping thousands of pounds of toxins, viruses, pharmaceuticals, disease carrying pathogens, directly into our drinking water resources EVERY DAY by REFUSING to implement this technology all for money and control of growth, development and our water.

    1,500 PEOPLE DIE EVERY DAY is the US from cancer, that’s 45,000 people EVERY MONTH. Congress made it a “CONGRESSIONAL MANDATE OF THE HIGHEST PRIORITY” and a “STRICT LIABILITY STATUE” to implement this technology, yet our County Supervisors have violated The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendment of 1972, Public Law 92-500, aka The Clean Water Act to keep their unlawful revenue stream flowing in all while poisoning and wasting our most precious drinking water resources.

    (3) 11 Total Votes - 7 up - 4 down
  8. Pelican1 says:

    A “special water district.” This is an example of how govt. bureaucracy is conceived. This is absurd.

    (6) 10 Total Votes - 8 up - 2 down
  9. obispan says:

    Can someone give me an over/under on when The Trib reports on this? 6 months, 2 years, 5 years, never? No line, no action.

    (11) 15 Total Votes - 13 up - 2 down