Sierra Club California pans Paso Robles water bill
May 6, 2014
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Editor’s Note: Letters from the Sierra Club California, North County Watch, The Center for Biological Diversity and Katcho Achadjian about a Paso Robles water basin bill are at the bottom of this article. The bill begins its legislative journey Wednesday.
A contentious bill aimed at authorizing a management district for the Paso Robles water basin endures its first legislative hearing Wednesday and will immediately face off against a growing coalition of influential opposition including Sierra Club California.
The proposed measure, AB2453, by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo), will be trotted out in the Assembly Local Government Committee, chaired by its sponsor.
Sierra Club California’s dissent is an apparent rebuff of two of the bill’s key mechanics, county supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson, Democrats who generally attract environmental support.
Central to water district opponents’ concerns is the acreage-based voting system currently being advocated by the bill’s mostly-agricultural backers.
That voting system, which under the plan now on the table would be utilized for formation as well as management and governance, was denounced last week in a letter co-authored by Annie Pham of Sierra Club California, Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action, and Haley Stewart of Defenders of Wildlife.
The groups will oppose the proposed bill “unless amended.”
In the letter to Achadjian, the coalition noted, “Unfortunately, the voting process to form and determine (district) directors that is proposed in AB2453 is unfair to local residents who do not own large acreage of lands. As written, (the bill) will allow voters to cast one vote per acre of land they own. This type of voting system will send a signal to local residents that their votes do not have the same weight as their neighbors who own more land.”
Also entering the fray in opposition to AB2453 is the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, whose Russell Howze called the bill “a scheme” and wrote that its passage could “create significant implications for all of California.”
Howze suggested that “setting up a vote based upon the size of property will set a precedent where wealthy landowners would be able to seize control of a region’s local groundwater.” He said the district as proposed would be “based solely on an unreasonable vote-by-acreage owned within the proposed district. (The bill) would allow as few as 35 landowners to create the district, and thus disenfranchise the thousands of registered voters who will be taxed on the water they use.” It also would “effectively privatize water and disempower the public… and set a negative precedent for future water districts.”
Also at issue if the Achadjian bill survives its entire legislative test would be “legal issues of equal protection under the state Constitution,” wrote Howze.
The plan’s constitutionality was examined over the last few months by Legislative Counsel, the lawmaker’s lawyers, and it tentatively passed muster.
Opposition to the Achadjian measure by the statewide organizations bolsters local efforts.
Sue Harvey, president of North County Watch, said AB2453 “is flawed.”
“Why would a respected politician like Assemblyman Achadjian want his legacy to be that he denied the Democratic principle of one person-one vote to 11,000 voters?” asked Harvey. “(This bill) is flawed and should be withdrawn. It’s bad public policy and sets a very bad statewide precedent. The intent … seems to be to force the question of constitutionality of the district into a protracted court battle. The very nature of a water district affects the water rights of the overlying landowners. (This bill) denies rural residents a voice. The solution is simple – one person-one vote.”
In a letter to members of the Assembly Local Government Committee, Harvey suggested numerous alternatives that could be considered in addition to the proposed bill. (Ed. note: See Harvey’s proposals below.)
Sheila Lyons, who chairs the Creston Advisory Board (CAB) whose hundreds of members recently voted to attempt to opt out of any future district, wrote to lawmakers that the proposed bill would ensure “the majority of landowners will have their rights taken from them.”
Achadjian is simultaneously promoting his bill to the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), a necessary step in the process of district formation.
In an April 28 letter to David Church, executive director of LAFCo, Achadjian announced his bill’s intentions, and admitted that deficiencies exist in his bill.
For example, he wrote, it still remains unclear “what the powers and duties of the (proposed) district will be.” (Some of those potential powers noted by the bill’s opponents include the district’s ability to tax, regulate, and enforce its own rules, and to finance and construct infrastructure allowing the transfer, and eventual sale, of local water to distant locales. Boundaries for the district also have not been resolved.)
Asked why his bill does not include protections for the basin’s local users, Achadjian told CalCoastNews that his focus is limited:
“My legislation only deals with the governance and elections structure, should the LAFCo board decide to establish the water district,” he wrote in an email. “Division 13 of the Water Code lists the various powers and duties that can be exercised by a California Water District. The LAFCo will have lengthy public hearings at which anyone who lives or owns property in the basin will be able to state their support of or opposition to any powers and duties, including water banking, that are being considered for the water district.”
Claudia Engel, a former member of the county’s Blue Ribbon Advisory Committee on the Paso Robles aquifer, said many legitimate questions remain unanswered.
“The fact is, with as much conflict that has been raised by this future local water district, these questions addressed by Katcho have had very little responsible, open discussion,” said Engel, who with her husband owns a 60-acre ranch in rural Creston. “There has never been a complete discussion about a voting system.”
Leading the bill’s boosters is a numerically-small but prominent group of agricultural growers and related business interests united under the banner of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS).
The group’s leadership is populated by large wine grape growers, advised by individuals closely connected to statewide water development, and peddled by the county’s most visible marketing and public relations firm, Barnett Cox and Associates.
Re: Sierra Club Letter