Water district plans colored by subterfuge
March 4, 2015
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
Planning by advocates of a sprawling water district to manage the Paso Robles basin has been cloaked in secrecy and back-room deals to help insure its eventual formation.
Legislation carried by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo) was significantly amended following a flurry of last-minute discussions between the lawmaker and district backers in early August, dozens of emails obtained by CalCoastNews show. The assemblyman then got the nod for his changes from four county supervisors — Frank Mecham, Bruce Gibson, Caren Ray, and Adam Hill — with Debbie Arnold choosing to remain neutral.
Key amendments inserted as a mid-summer legislative deadline approached altered the formula by which a water district could be formed — from a majority of landowners to 10 percent of the 4,500 landowners within the proposed district boundaries. This amendment was included because a cadre of influential supporters expressed their belief that a simple majority of district property owners voting to approve a district was an unachievable goal.
Another amendment with seismic impact was the inclusion of a provision allowing “an affected local agency, such as the Board of Supervisors or the Flood Control District, to submit a resolution for district creation to the county Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo).”
In other words, even if the required number of landowners within the proposed district’s boundaries declined to endorse a district, a simple majority on the Board of Supervisors could petition LAFCo for its formation.
“I never thought in a million years that Katcho would put in language that would let the county apply for an assessment district,” said Arnold this week. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Numerous emails during the two-week period prior to the passage of AB2453 from Achadjian were distributed to only two supervisors, then-chairman Gibson, and Mecham whose First District overlies the most impacted part of the water basin. Mecham and Gibson are two of the seven LAFCo members.
Mecham said this week that he supported the amendments because “it will help place the matter of forming a water district before the voters.”
At one point in April, Achadjian sought “an environmental group from the area that supports it” [the water district]. “Do you have a recommendation for a group that would be interested in supporting this legislation to ensure the groundwater pumping in the basin is regulated?” he wrote to Gibson.
“We’re a little short of moderate environmental groups here,” Gibson replied in an email. “We have groups like the Sierra Club who tend to oppose most projects, even those that potentially have good environmental results.” He suggested the local chapter of the Sierra Club “has the ear of the state organization which I don’t think has a clear grasp of our situation.”
On one occasion, Achadjian notified Gibson that Arnold was in Sacramento circulating materials opposing the district’s formation. During this time, Achadjian appeared to be seeking an indication of unanimity from a variety of entities within the proposed district boundaries.
His bill, Achadjian wrote to Gibson in early April, “represents a year-long negotiation between two very different factions of landowners within the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.” Achadjian referred to PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity, two groups which joined efforts to form the district. PRO Water Equity has four members; PRAAGS has repeatedly declined to respond to inquires about its membership.
Those two bodies have dominated the effort to form a water district, and their suggestions were heavily incorporated into the last-minute changes in AB2453 — changes that appear to have smoothed the eventual path to a district. Both groups threatened to withdraw support for the bill if their wishes were ignored.
“I wouldn’t sponsor this bill is it didn’t have the support of the county, the city of Paso Robles, and many other interested parties,” Achadjan said during a recent segment of Dave Congalton’s Home Town radio show on KVEC/920 AM.
“Those groups (PRAAGS and PRO Water Equity) are made up of the same people who are responsible for the heaviest pumping” from the basin, said Greg Grewal, a Creston rancher who often advises Supervisor Arnold on water matters. “Katcho’s bill does nothing to conserve or provide water, it just targets a specific group of landowners” to be included in the district’s proposed boundaries.
Emails between Jerry Reaugh, president of PRAAGS, other officers in the group, Achadjian, and Gibson during the bill’s August metamorphosis showed that PRAAGS hoped to involve itself even more. PRAAGS is comprised primarily of vintners, ranchers, and vineyard support organizations.
Reaugh and board member Bob Brown attempted to include PRAGGS’ attorney Ernest Conant in drafting the bill’s wording before it was submitted to the Legislative Counsel for an opinion on its legality.
Brown worried about attacks on the bill from “special interest groups” and hoped PRAGGS would “press as hard as we can to get Ernest in there before they (Legislative Counsel) issue the written opinion.”
Conant helped form PRAAGS in late 2013. He currently is general counsel for the Kern Water Bank Authority and helped develop the Semitropic and Arvin-Edison Water Storage District’s water banking programs.
The city of Paso Robles is the biggest user of basin water by far and it will not be included in the district, but its water officials are playing a critical role in its formation.
“The city and the biggest growers don’t want to slow their pumping, but they want everyone else to do so,” said Grewal.