Here’s the best motive to love or hate a new water district

April 22, 2015
Dan Blackburn

Dan Blackburn

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 blackburn.danielj@gmail.com

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15 Comments

  1. jacksprat says:

    Conspiracy theories, backroom deals seem to consume most of you. Your choices are simple and straight forward. Someone will tell you what to do with your wells. Meters and limits are ahead regardless of who manages it because it is now State law. It will either be the Supervisors or a water district telling you what to do. Planting is stopped and water will not be exported as we don’t have the pipes and no one could get through the permitting process. No one. The State is lurking in the background if we don’t get our act together. So which one is it? I say Gibson, Hill and Compton (or whoever gets elected to these districts in the future) care less about what goes on up here. The new groundwater law trumps all this other stuff people. And all this will be decided in about two years so adjudication will not save you.

    (-7) 15 Total Votes - 4 up - 11 down
    • IronHub says:

      This post is nothing but fear-mongering. “The state is lurking…” What B.S. Straight out of the PRAAGS playbook.

      (1) 9 Total Votes - 5 up - 4 down
      • jacksprat says:

        The state coming in is now written the the state water code. Pavley Dickinson did this. Read the bill. It is fact, not fear mongering.

        (2) 6 Total Votes - 4 up - 2 down
    • lostinspace says:

      Here we have more of Bob Brown’s demand that we ignore the facts and logical solutions available and accept the self-serving PRAAGS proposal to allow the big water users be allowed to continue with business as usual while the “Small people” get stuck with the bills. Yes, there is now an Export Ordinance in place that adds to the challenge of exporting water but falls far short of making it impossible and does not address water transvers, water exchanges or water banking at all. PRAAGS has casually mentioned many times that they want to bring in supplemental water which, by the way, will require the same pipes that he claims couldn’t possibly be installed. So, just how do we get some of that non-existent surplus water? By forming an AB 2453 type, privet water district that will strip the water rights from all area residents over the basin, then use that control of the water to sign an agreement with a large water broker for water banking. The only surplus water available exists only on paper, therefore known as paper water, so the basin will be rescued with paper water injection then the broker will have the right to take back real, wet water in exchange to sell to their thirsty clients down south providing enormous profits for those in control and requiring the rest of us watch our water get shipped south while getting stuck with the bills of paying for the infrastructure required to make this water heist possible. As one of the previous responders said, just follow the money!

      (6) 12 Total Votes - 9 up - 3 down
  2. heybobareebob says:

    Hey Lame,
    Not a commons? You just admitted it is by acknowledging you only had the rights to use something that belongs to someone else. And guess who that someone is? Me and 37 million other Californians. We gave you the right to use our water as long as you use it beneficially. Boy, that sure is a commons to me. Next thing I’m gonna hear from you is that the riverfront owners on the Salinas own the water. No Lame, they own the rights not already taken by upstream guys. That’s the way the law works. Good or bad. Oh yeah let’s let the unbridled free market rule. Be real nice living in LA with no smog control which the car guys fought for years.

    (0) 8 Total Votes - 4 up - 4 down
  3. CARNAC says:

    As with most economic issues all you need to do is follow the money and see who benefits.

    PRAAGS is posturing the district as a “motherhood and apple pie” solution to the “water problem” along with their song of “local control.” In this way they hope to sell those who will vote on the district formation to vote an emotional yes. Nothing could be further from the truth. PRAAGS is nothing but a bunch of greedy self-serving people posing as the Lone Ranger riding to our rescue.

    Questions that need to be answered:

    1) Who will benefit financially from a water district and who will be harmed?

    2) How will a water district bring water to those well owners with dry wells?

    3) What backroom deals were made to induce Kacho to carry AB 2453?

    4) Why was the original bill (2453) only a few pages and the final bill many pages replete with draconian provisions vis-à-vis private well owners? Who orchestrated the changes and for whose benefit?

    5) What backroom deals were made to get Frank on board?

    6) Why did the BOS need to spend $350,000 to prepare the LAFCO application?

    7) Why did PRAAGS not want to carry the ball (and front the money) for a petition to LAFCO on the formation of a district?

    8) Why the rush to plant several thousand acres of new grapes after the BOS instituted the emergency ordinance?

    9) Why has big money purchased large acreage in known “good water” areas of the north county during the last few years?

    The bottom line is this:

    The most egregious culprits (other than no rain) are the very large irrigated Ag users of water (mega grape growers) and the City of Paso Robles with out of control growth during the last 20 years.

    Those of us on less than 40 acres (growing a few fruit trees, growing a vegetable garden, and watering a few chickens and horses, did not cause the problem, but we will pay dearly if a district is formed through meters on our wells, water usage fees, and restrictions on usage – while the mega pumpers go on their merry way and cash big checks.

    The majority of our politicians are spineless wimps kowtowing to big money! So what else is new? What a Country!

    (15) 17 Total Votes - 16 up - 1 down
    • DonKeyhoti says:

      Answers to your questions:

      1) Who will benefit financially from a water district and who will be harmed?

      All landowners will benefit financially if the basin is managed sustainability. From the one acre owners to the largest landowners, all will see their land values stabilize if the basin is stabilized as well. The harm will come if we don’t do anything and our wells continue to drop. Irrigated agriculture will take the biggest financial hit to fund most of the cost of either a water district or a new management agency under the County’s control.

      2) How will a water district bring water to those well owners with dry wells?

      A water district will focus upon local sources of supply. There is unallocated Nacimiento water and waste water from the City that could be used to recharge the critical areas around the airport. A locally elected district board should run on a platform of securing these water sources. One has to ask; What is the County doing about this now?

      3) What backroom deals were made to induce Katcho to carry AB 2453?

      Two groups came together to create a governance structure that would allow both the small rural resident and agricultural landowners to have a voice in how a water district would be run. This structure does not exist anywhere else in California so the State Water Code had to be amended. Private groups cannot go to the State Legislature and introduce any bill. These groups met with Katcho who said he would take direction only from the Board of Supervisors if this is what they wanted to do. The Supervisors, by and 4 to 1 vote requested Katcho to sponsor this bill. This was all done with extensive public discussion and input all along the way. This is the way our democracy works.

      4) Why was the original bill (2453) only a few pages and the final bill many pages replete with draconian provisions vis-à-vis private well owners? Who orchestrated the changes and for whose benefit?

      The original 7 page bill focused primarily on the hybrid board. Like most legislation, once it gets into the committees in Sacramento, other legislators and their staffs begin to closely examine the bill to see how it impacts water agencies in their districts. The powers and authority language (which took it to 17 pages) was taken from the Fox Canyon district powers which had been recently added to the Water Code. This was placed in the bill by these committees and their consultants. Once Katcho saw these additions, he wrote to all 5 of our Supervisors and asked and received their consent to accept these changes. This language closely matches that of the Pavley/Dickinson bill that was going through the Assembly and Senate at the same time. If the district is formed, the benefit will be that the board will have powers and authority virtually identical to those in the P/D bill. If the district vote fails, the County will have available the same powers from P/D so you get them either way.

      5) What backroom deals were made to get Frank on board?

      This is a classic debate 101 dodge. Make a baseless accusation without any supporting facts and attempt to get the accused to answer it. Simply, there are no facts to support such an allegation. A similar accusation could be made that Supervisor Arnold is in the pocket of the Quiet Title plaintiffs as they oppose the district as does she. To be clear I believe both are honest and ethical and it is disingenuous to think that just because an elected official votes in opposition to the way we think, the are on the take.

      6) Why did the BOS need to spend $350,000 to prepare the LAFCO application?

      Counties all over the State directly petition LAFCO to form or modify special purpose districts for a variety of reasons. The Templeton CSD and the Avila Beach CSD were put out to voters this way by our own Supervisors. Again, the County is running the show. Why? Because the majority of Supervisors have repeatedly said they want the landowners in the basin to decide how they want to be governed.

      7) Why did PRAAGS not want to carry the ball (and front the money) for a petition to LAFCO on the formation of a district?

      This group had proposed a California Water District which would have been formed, funded and run by a board based upon landowners voting their acreage. A 5 acre landowner would get 5 votes and a 100 acre landowner would get 100 votes, etc. This was not deemed fair as the largest landowners could vote in the district over the objections of the larger number smaller rural residents. The Supervisors voted to modify the formation vote in AB 2453 to a one vote per landowner requirement thereby taking control of the bill and the voting process with them.

      8) Why the rush to plant several thousand acres of new grapes after the BOS instituted the emergency ordinance?

      When the urgency ordinance was put in place there were landowners, big and small who had obligated themselves to contracts for plants and vineyard equipment. There is established law called vested rights that prevents public agencies from quickly enacting laws that would force a default on legally binding contracts. The County required these landowners to present their cases for review and determination. It was up to the County to approve or decline these requests.

      9) Why has big money purchased large acreage in known “good water” areas of the north county during the last few years?

      Paso Robles has been an attractive area to invest in land for decades. Large investors have been here for just as long. From banks, insurance companies, investment funds,and well funded foreign investors, all are here as we speak. “Good water” areas make for sound investments to grow crops including grapes. In 2013, Wine Enthusiast rated Paso Robles as the wine region of the year so word gets around. Now, regardless of size all landowners have to get together to preserve the resource.

      Meters and pumping limits are coming whether it is a water district or the County manages the Paso basin. This is in the new Pavley/Dickinson bill.

      (4) 14 Total Votes - 9 up - 5 down
      • lostinspace says:

        Now, to round out the famous PRAAGS tag team, we have the infamous Jerry Reaugh “smoke screen” defense. Dazzle with brilliance while baffling with BS. The easiest example to explain away is question #7. PRAAGS handed the ball off to the county because they knew it would be imposable for them to gather signatures from 10% of the landowners and the county could push it through without having to gat a single signature on the petition. Yes, the basin does need to be managed but just about anything will be better than what they are offering with their AB 2453 plan to give the big water users Cart-Blanch while passing the expenses on to the “Small People.”

        (5) 11 Total Votes - 8 up - 3 down
  4. Otis says:

    “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.”

    Dan Blackburn’s editorial/journalistic genius exemplifies the excellence of CalCoastNews reporting.

    The truth based on facts is sought by Velie and Blackburn — and leaves the Tribune and New Times in the dust of “has been” journalism.

    (17) 39 Total Votes - 28 up - 11 down
    • jacksprat says:

      Isn’t everyone’s power consumption kept private by public utilities? Why should I have to disclose how much electricity I use? What about how much natural gas I consume? There are privacy rules for a reason folks and I fail to see how we want to throw away this fundamental right to privacy. People have fought for centuries for this right and to not have this kind of information or any other such type of data to be publicly aired. Well pumping data, be it under a water district or the County Flood Control district, must be reported. That data had better be kept private. For everyone’s sake.

      (-6) 8 Total Votes - 1 up - 7 down
  5. pasoparent5 says:

    “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.”

    That sentence alone should scare the $@#( out of Paso residents!

    (22) 32 Total Votes - 27 up - 5 down
  6. OtisCampbell says:

    Mr. Blackburn,

    Thank you for this informative article.

    (19) 33 Total Votes - 26 up - 7 down
  7. Slowerfaster says:

    Water is a ‘commons’ . There should be full transparency and NO protected classes.

    The public have a right to know.

    (22) 32 Total Votes - 27 up - 5 down
    • OnTheOtherHand says:

      I agree that it should be but it may not be in a legal sense. I wonder if enough people care to get the law changed?

      (15) 15 Total Votes - 15 up - 0 down
    • LameCommenter says:

      Water is NOT a “commons”, my socialist friend Slower. Shouldn’t be, anyway.

      Water is a property right best managed by free enterprise and temperance of our laws. It only becomes dicey when there is a sudden change which is not easily remediated, i.e. vineyard over-consumption. We saw this in El Pomar in the 50’s when a sweet old farmer put in his first sugar beet well. Luckily he was near the Rinconada fault and the water “table” stabilized but at a new slightly lower level which caused a few local neighbors to have to drill new wells. Nature remediated that one albeit at a cost to neighbors.

      There is no remediation for thousands of well horsepower feeding greedy grape growers.

      (6) 14 Total Votes - 10 up - 4 down

Comments are closed.