Water district opposition growing, may sink plan
September 17, 2015
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A county commission pushed forward a proposal to form a Paso Robles water regulatory district Thursday while its top executive deflected assertions that more than a thousand letters of opposition have been kept from public view. The Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) gave a nod to the Paso Robles Water Basin district’s concept and voted to put the plan before North County voters by an 6-1 vote.
Commissioner Roberta Fonzi cast the lone dissenting vote. An election may be set March 8, 2016, to determine if two-thirds of property owners in the potential district boundaries will approve a tax assessment to fund the district.
Each of the owners of property over the basin will have one vote, as specified in enabling legislation.
Opinion on the water district’s formation is widely divided, evidenced by the flood of speakers who appeared at the LAFCo meeting. About a hundred people attended the meeting.
The number of overlying property owners publicly opposing the district’s formation is undeniably growing, something LAFCo officials may have wanted to de-emphasize prior to the meeting: a thousand-plus letters were filed separately from the final staff report to commissioners.
Rancher Larry McGourty questioned the way LAFCo Executive Director David Church handled the letters:
“These letters are properly comment letters and should not have been filed separately. I fully expect that you will provide the commissioners with at a minimum a count and list of names so they have an accurate understanding that it is unlikely that this district will pass a formation vote,” McGourty wrote in an email to Church this week.
Church noted that the letters were available on the commission’s website, but McGourty replied that it was “not sufficient.”
“By now the count of these letters is in the thousands,” he wrote, “and it should be evident to (LAFCo) that opposition is already nearing a critical mass for a ‘no’ vote.”
North County landowner Julie McClosky told Church in another email, “This seems like an intentional act by LAFCo to dismiss the overwhelming opposition to the AB 2453 water district. It has a very strong appearance of impropriety. The people need to be made aware of these personal opposition letters, not just the commissioners.”
In his report to the commission, Church downplayed the protests, responded selectively to certain assertions, and defended the proposed taxing mechanism as not being “illegal.” He said the district is needed “to comply” with the state’s recently-mandated Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
Opponents of the proposed district argue that it is not necessary in order to comply to state mandates.
County supervisors are split on the matter of the district’s formation, but that hasn’t prevented its staff from launching a veritable public relations program in support of the plan.
County Public Works Administrator John Diodati, who also serves as project manager for the Paso Robles basin water district formation project, outlined to commissioners a comprehensive, tax-supported “outreach program” that is being conducted to “educate” North County residents about the district plan.
Perhaps not coincidentally, a representative of the California Department of Water Resources stepped to the microphone to inform the crowd that the Paso Robles basin — as of this week — is in “critical overdraft.” That particular determination has remained an essential ingredient in the formula for a successful effort to create a district. A report explaining methodology used in developing the timely determination will be made public in the near future.
Updated at 8:35 p.m. to reflect the correct number of commissioners.