Report: Water district plan endangers basin’s future
February 9, 2016
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
A new, wide-reaching state law ostensibly intended to “sustain” water basins throughout California actually opens the door to privatization of the Paso Robles aquifer, according to a recently released report.
Writing for the Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal, authors Adam Keats and Chelsea Tu conclude that the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) — widely hailed upon its passage in 2014 — may create more problems in the North County than it ever solves. The authors specifically cited the Paso basin, which they contend “is threatened by the development of water banking operations which function to replace groundwater resources with privatized, banked water that would undermine the public interest.”
According to the authors, this is a threat that the new state law “may be promoting.”
“Equitable regulation of groundwater basins may be challenged by current and future efforts to privatize these groundwater resources,” Keats and Tu reported.
Backers of a plan to form a special “hybrid” water district to manage the basin’s supplies have denied that water banking is part of their plans. But considerable evidence suggests otherwise.
South County supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson are the leading proponents of the district.
An election to authorize a tax to support operations of a new North County water district, and to elect board members, is being conducted by mail and will be completed in March.
Water banking is the practice of importing water into an existing aquifer for extraction at a later time. The most apparent example of water banking is in Kern County, where a handful of powerful agriculturalists have essentially commandeered the Central Valley’s entire underground water supply. So much water is being pumped from the Kern basin for nut production that the land above has subsided — in some cases, by many feet.
Keats and Tu contend that new “locally-controlled” agencies — such as the one proposed for the North County — will be “controlled or dominated by their private industry members (and are) not likely to succeed in achieving an equitable and sustainable groundwater management system.”
Language in the new law “appears to endorse water banking and exchanges,” the study notes.
The law “provides for blanket, discretionary authority of local agencies to perform any acts necessary or proper to enable the agency to purchase, transfer, deliver, or exchange water or water rights of any type of any person.”
A key element of the law’s alleged weakness, the authors write, is “the fact that banked water remains governed by surface water rights and is not subject to traditional groundwater laws regarding percolated groundwater.” This, then, sets up a potential conflict between existing and future users.
“It is not difficult to envision a privately-controlled agency systematically drawing down percolated groundwater to create storage space in the basin, and then replenishing the basin with imported water, with little consideration of the ability of overlying users to access the basin or the long-term health of the surrounding ecosystem,” the authors write.
The report also belies the contention that the basin is in “overdraft.”
“While water use pressure has increased over the past two decades,” the authors write, “it is unlikely that the entire basin is currently over-drafted.”
The report cites some of the major players in the plan to promote a water district’s formation as some of the state’s largest water privateers. Brodiaea Inc., a company solely owned by Harvard University’s Management Company, is, according to its website, “investing in natural resources by purchasing millions of dollars worth of vineyard land in California. The company owned more than 14,600 acres in the Shandon-Carrizo area of San Luis Obispo County alone.”
Also vested in the district plan is Roll Vineyards LLC, owned by billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick and one of the country’s largest privately owned agribusiness companies.
The pending opportunity to privatize Paso Robles Basin water “has also attracted the attention of Scott Slater, a well- known water rights attorney and president of Cadiz, Inc., which is now developing plans to store water in the aquifer underneath the Mojave Desert,” the Keats-Tu report notes.
The Paso basin “is poised to convert to privately-controlled, for-profit water banks,” the report asserts.
“While local management of groundwater resources may appear ideal, diverse interests at the local level will likely be undermined by those of powerful agribusiness owners, investors, and water brokers who view water not as a human right or environmental necessity, but a fungible commodity that can be captured and sold in a market or exchange,” the report concludes.
Like CCN on Facebook.