Subterfuge stalked Paso Robles water district plan
March 14, 2016
OPINION by DANIEL BLACKBURN
Any post-mortem of the failed effort to form a water district in the North County needs to start with Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and his resounding snub to thousands of the regions’ residents.
Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo) sponsored legislation enabling the million-dollar election, despite clear indications that the district proposal was immensely unpopular with a large swath of voters who had already made their feelings known. That made absolutely no difference to Achadjian, who fell all over himself to carry a bill — any bill — that his wealthy supplicants wanted.
In doing so, Achadjian ignored the obvious majority, and opted instead to listen to a handful of politically powerful locals — most of whom have already sunk the deepest straws into the beleaguered Paso Robles aquifer.
Nevertheless, years of discussions, arguments, planning, and certainly scheming came to a crashing conclusion with the rejection of the tax-supported water management agency. The dramatic and sudden climax must have been jolting for Achadjian and the plan’s other overconfident backers, kind of like driving over a cliff after a thousand-mile road trip.
Three of four voters nixed the unnecessarily complex plan to manage the Paso Robles aquifer. Oddly, that result deeply befuddled the cadre of pro-district folks, apparently, who spent considerable time, energy, financial resources, printers’ ink, and (for Achadjian) heavy political capital, to plot for the proposed government entity. They really shouldn’t have been surprised by the outcome.
Let’s autopsy the plan’s stupendous collapse.
Growing from dual directions of drought, and dramatic over-pumping to slake the thirst of an ever-expanding sprawl of vineyards, the notion of a water district to “maintain local control” over the resource may have made some sense at the outset.
“Local control” meant different things to different people. And when individuals comprising the plan’s inner circle and its architects were finally identified, the suggestion was strong that beneficiaries of an eventual water district were hardly local.
The initial support group, calling itself Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), got its formative advice from Randy Record, the chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the world’s largest water wholesalers. He is arguably one of the state’s most influential water officials. Record’s family owns a small vineyard near Paso Robles.
For legal advice, the PRAAGS folks turned to Ernest A. Conant, of the Bakersfield law firm of Young Woolridge. Conant specializes in water law, and he was a key player in the formation and implementation of the Kern Water Bank Authority. In his position, Conant guided the takeover of the Central Valley’s water supply by one of his more affluential clients, Beverly Hills billionaire Stewart Resnick.
Resnick purchased the 750-acre Hardham Ranch on the outskirts of Paso Robles in late 2013, just before the county-initiated water moratorium took effect. The ranch, which historically had been used for dry farming and ranching, suddenly sprouted grape vines fed by a massive irrigation system incorporating large reservoirs and deep wells.
When PRAAGS initially formed, it found an adversary in another local group calling itself PRO Water Equity, headed by Sue Luft. Luft’s professional history includes work for Resnick while she lived in Bakersfield.
When Luft began to shift the objectives of her group toward an alignment with the PRAAGS people, most of her members defected, leaving her with a handful of allies who pretended throughout the campaign to voice “local” concerns.
Complicating the picture was the unabashed support of the district plan from two coastal supervisors, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson, both of whom audaciously criticized opponents of the plan, including fellow supervisor Debbie Arnold. Arnold’s constituents would have been the most affected by the water district formation.
When these peculiarities were pointed out to district proponents, they accused questioners of “conspiracy thinking.” That’s a standard allegation made by people who find their hidden agendas have been made public. And that’s about when the supporters started speaking in tongues about their intentions.
Were they planning to bank new water in the basin? Were they planning to export any of that water out of the basin? Were they really acting in the public’s interest? Rather than discussing their motive candidly, proponents chose instead to belittle and demean their detractors.
It was clear from the outset of the district’s planning process that opposition ran deep.
When Achadjian was crafting his enabling legislation, he was inundated with concerns from people leery of a district formed by some of the biggest water consumers in the basin. There were more than 100 letters in opposition to any Achadjian bill; there were only 10 in support.
Interestingly, that ratio almost exactly reflects the final tally of the crushing electoral defeat.
The PRAAGS group spent more than $300,000 to promote their district concept, while grass-roots efforts cost a mere $20,000.
So the question lingers: Why in the world would Katcho Achadjian so enthusiastically sign onto this train wreck in the first place, catering to a rich minority while ignoring a huge constituency so obviously troubled by the plan?
It is a legitimate issue he should answer as he gazes covetously toward a seat in Congress.
Daniel Blackburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org