Here’s the best motive to love or hate a new water district
April 22, 2015
OPINION by DANIEL BLACKBURN
Advocates of a proposed Paso Robles basin water district trooped to the microphone Tuesday like dutiful crusaders, all to inform San Luis Obispo County supervisors of the many reasons for their support.
Here’s a really good one that none of these promoters bothered to mention: a relatively obscure provision in a California law will allow officials of such a new water district to hide both their customer list, and the amount of water those customers pump from the basin.
I say “relatively” obscure provision because it’s a foregone conclusion that the district’s coalition of backers — the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) — have known about it since they started piecing together plans for a district’s formation back in late 2013. PRAAGS is a group comprised largely of the most aggressive pumpers of the basin’s resource supply.
Think about this for a moment, if you will: the folks with the deepest straws in the North County aquifer have put together a juggernaut effort to create a district which would operate under a state law allowing members to keep secret the identities and water consumption of… themselves.
A Riverside County Superior Court judge last month upheld the law’s application in a dispute over access to the records of the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD). For years, the water district has released annual reports listing water users’ data. Those reports showed, without exception, that local businesses, including agriculture and golf courses, were the thirstiest users.
But in 2014, the drought’s second year, the district’s annual report was mysteriously devoid of this data.
A request for the information by reporters for the newspaper Desert Sun — which for years had faithfully published names and water usage amounts of CVWD’s groundwater customers — was denied. A lawsuit was filed by attorneys for the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), a San Rafael-based watchdog group, who now are expected to appeal the court’s decision.
Ironically, both the records request and the denial were based on sections of California’s Public Records Act.
The law, which allows public access to public information and records, also provides protection for individual customers by making disclosure of their names, addresses, and utility usage data difficult to acquire; disclosure is not required. As with many well-intentioned provisions in law, this one has been roundly exploited in a way likely not envisioned by the law’s authors.
The key issue in the Riverside County decision was whether or not corporations qualify as “individuals.” The judge decided they do.
The law firm handling the case for the CVWD is Riverside-based Best Best & Krieger, which for decades has been arguably the state’s preeminent water law expert. A partner in BB&K is Iris Ping Yang, who is the contract city attorney for Paso Robles.
The city of Paso Robles sits directly over the so-called “cone of depression,” the deepest deficit in the entire Paso Robles basin area, and is the biggest user of water in the North County. It will not be part of any new water district, because it is, in effect, its own district. But city water officials have been dominant players and enthusiastic boosters for the district’s formation.
As a corporation, Paso Robles city officials also will have a legal excuse now to tell nosy reporters and other citizens that water usage from the basin is none of their concern.
If I owned a business around here that used a large amount of water, I’d be looking at this proposed water district not as a supplier or manager of the basin’s water, but as a shield for my embarrassingly consumptive use.
And just like members of PRAAGS, the district’s primary backer, I would really, really love this district strategy.
CalCoastNews Senior Correspondent Daniel Blackburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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