Convicted polluter and politicos battle over water basin control

April 3, 2017

By KAREN VELIE

Amid a battle over control of the Paso Robles groundwater basin, a local political group has become a vocal advocate for large land owners, including one property owner convicted of polluting an aquifer in Colorado, who are opposed to county management of San Luis Obispo County’s water basins.

Joining proponents of the failed Paso Robles groundwater basin district, the SLO Progressives, a recently formed liberal political group, have accused three supervisors of violating the Brown Act, California’s public meeting law.

California law requires that water basins be sustainably managed by local agencies or risk intervention by state water officials. For years, several large vineyard owners and politicians, including Stewart and Linda Resnick, the Harvard Investment Fund and county supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson, have supported plans for a groundwater basin district in the North County.

PRO Water Equity and the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions joined in the promotion of a proposed district to be governed by directors based on how much land they own. Opponents then formed the Paso Robles Water Integrity Network to prevent the district from becoming a reality.

In Feb. 2016, Laurie Gage, the vice president of PRO Water Equity, filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission against two officers of the Paso Robles Water Integrity Network alleging they had violated campaign laws in their attempt to stop the proposed district. The investigation is ongoing.

In early March 2016, more than 70 percent of voters rejected the large landowners’ plans for their water district. During their campaigns, proponents of the district spent more than $120,000 while opponents only raised $20,500, according to county records.

Mike Cervi

In December, the Estrella Land Company LLC purchased the more than 21,000 acre Estrella Ranch from the Hearst family for $27,540,000, according to public records. Mike Cervi of Greeley, Colo., is the primary owner of the ranch.

In 2005, Cervi pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act. According to his plea agreement, Cervi had his employees hide a leak from an oil well that was polluting an aquifer, produce fake samples using clean water and then submit the clean samples to the Weld County Health Department. Cervi was sentenced to pay a fine of $250,000 and to serve five months in federal prison, according to the Greeley Tribune.

After voters rejected their plans for a groundwater district, Gibson and Hill continued supporting large land owners including the Resnicks, Harvard Investments and Mike Cervi and their plans for forming several water districts over portions of the Paso Robles basin. The proposed districts include a 144,000-acre Shandon-San Juan Water District and a 45,000-acre Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District.

On Jan. 17, Christina Grewal wrote a letter she sent to Cervi asking him not to support a water district. The letter included her and her father Greg Grewal’s names. Greg Grewal is a retired Los Angeles City firefighter who owns a ranch in Creston. He supports local control of the groundwater basin.

On March 16, Lauri Gage wrote a letter to County Counsel Rita Neal alleging a Brown Act violation and noting that the redacted letter was sent to her anonymously.

Laurie Gage

Gage says the letter is evidence of a serial meeting between three supervisors, Debbie Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong, the three supervisors wanting county control of the local groundwater basins. The Brown Act prohibits three or more supervisors from communicating about county business in person or through a representative of one of the supervisors who serves as an intermediary.

Both Peschong and Compton told CalCoastNews they have never met with Grewal to discuss the Paso Robles basin.

In Gage’s copy of the letter, the name and address of Cervi, who is an owner of the largest property in the proposed Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District, is redacted.

In addition, the name of Christina Grewal is missing and it appears that Greg Grewal’s name is moved up, said Cody Ferguson who has a copy of the original letter.

“This is a bunch of rich people trying to steal the aquifer and groundwater from the Paso Robles basin,” Ferguson said.

While County Counsel Neal said there did not appear to be a Brown Act violation, on March 24 supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson pushed to have the Gage’s allegation sent to the SLO County District Attorney’s Office for an investigation.

At the March 24 meeting, 10 members of the SLO Progressives complained about the alleged Brown Act violation. In the end, the supervisors voted 5-0 to discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting set for April 4.

On the SLO Progressives’ website, 10 members are asked to go to each board of supervisors meeting to promote the groups agenda, which includes supporting Hill and Gibson’s allegations of Brown Act violations. The SLO Progressives declined to answer questions about their views on water sustainability or their allegations of Brown Act violations.







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17 Comments

  1. HWTED says:

    Good grief, just when you think you have seen it all, here we have Big Left joining Big Grape on a matter of principle…?

    This article and comments give the impression that this is North County’s problem. It is not. The real impact on projected County GSA administration costs is not the Paso Basin at $138K a year. That basin at present is at least is in balance. In comparison, it’s the other troubled basins in the county, the Los Osos Basin at $792K per year (Yikes! think of adding that in addition to your sewer costs), the Santa Maria basin at $463K a year and to some extent the SLO basin at $162K a year are the big ticket items and the bulk of the cost for proposed county GSA administration.

    Sections 10725.8 (e) and 10730(a) of SGMA expressly exempt non-commercial demiminis users from regulation and taxation. So assuming the GSAs follow the law (which may be a big assumption in California), most county rural residents are not going to be paying anything directly anyway for basin management. Regulation and administration costs are to be borne by the commercial extractors and purveyors. SGMA recognizes that these are the major factors impacting the stability and sustainably of the groundwater basins, not the little guy on a couple of acres with a shower and a toilet connected to a 7gpm domestic well.

    If you work at a business that relies upon groundwater, work at a business located in or live in a city that pumps groundwater for its water source, i.e. most of the residents in the county, in addition to the taxes and fees you are already paying, one way or another you are going to be paying all of the GSA costs too. Asking the supervisors to use some of the tax money already being collected to help pay for the management of a vital resource for the benefit of everyone is not an unreasonable request.

    (5) 5 Total Votes - 5 up - 0 down
    • jacksprat says:

      The State expressly states in Bulletin 118 dated January 2016 that the Paso Basin is critically overdrafted. To say anything else is disingenuous at least or a flat out fabrication at worst. Section 10725.8 says that de minimis extractors are excluded from being required to have meters or be forced to pay for them. There is no mention of being excluded from regulation or fees. Section 10730 (a) expressly states, “A groundwater sustainability agency shall not impose a fee pursuant to this subdivision on a de minimis extractor unless the agency has regulated the users pursuant to this part.” The key word is “unless.” California water law lawyers across the State are in agreement that this means it will be up to the Groundwater Agencies to decide if they want to regulate de minimis users and thereby charge them fees.

      For Sacramento to have written it this way makes sense as many Groundwater Agencies in other State basins have only de minimis users and little or no ag pumpers. They will be compelled to regulate them to achieve sustainability. Is there any doubt they will not impose fees for this purpose? There are thousands of de minimis users in the at risk basins in the County. Who in their right mind would think the County would ignore at them as a major water pumping class as collectively they pump tens of thousands of acre feet per year.

      (6) 6 Total Votes - 6 up - 0 down
      • HWTED says:

        Hi Jack, always good to hear the PRAAGS take on the subject of water. B118 not withstanding, no scientific study, of which there have been several, has conclusively shown the Paso Robles basin to be in over-draft, let alone “critically over-drafted”and more importantly it has never been declared to be in overdraft by the county.

        I didn’t know you were a water lawyer, but the critical word is “has” regulated. All English teachers and I suspect a majority of non-water Lawyers would interpreted that as past tense, not future. As stated in the bill itself, SGMA was written not to supersede any existing California water law or rights. But I will grant you one thing, when it comes to water you better be paying attention -ask the residents of Kern. Thanks for the heads up. We will be watching.

        I admit, I am not aware of any critically over drafted basins consisting of non-ag rural de minimis users. Maybe you can enlighten us where they are?

        If you add up ALL the de minimis users in the State, I am sure they pump in the millions of acre feet per year. But the issue is local impact and de minimis is a legal term term meaning insignificant, which is certainly the case in the Paso Basin. They extract less than 1% of the water annually and recycle most of that back via septic systems. But you are right if the county can get away with it, they will not ignore any potential tax source. Thanks for the heads up. We will be watching.

        Finally, why are you STILL making this a North County Issue? We are not in serious trouble here and not likely to be in the future unless the water sharks move in. But right now the issue is the efficient use of an existing tax already collected that affects all the residents and will have a huge impact mostly on the South County.

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

          While reading your belief in the Basin’s health and your tortured explanation of the word has, it reminded me of a guy I had in a college history class who would come up to a group after class and say something like, you know the Holocaust never happened. We would all be standing there in silence, knowing that any more discussion was futile. Years later, we would always wonder whatever happen to people like him.

          (-5) 9 Total Votes - 2 up - 7 down
          • HWTED says:

            Here we go again with the ad hominen attacks.

            Despite numerous CPRA requests, DWR, other than citing a newspaper article they read as evidence, has never provided any scientific documentation to back up their claims of critical overdraft in the Paso Basin. On the other hand, the county has numerous scientific studies which show it isn’t in overdraft.

            ‘Has regulated’ is the present perfect tense of the verb ‘regulate’ meaning the action has completed or been perfected in the past. A college grad would know that.

            Regarding the guy in class, I think we have a good idea where he ended up.

            As always, it’s been fun trading barbs with you Jack, even if always seems to end up with a kind of weird college anecdote.

            (0) 2 Total Votes - 1 up - 1 down
  2. jacksprat says:

    I can appreciate the debate as to whether or not there was a violation of the Brown Act. It makes for an interesting discussion but it masks the real issue. Plain and simple, the Supervisorial majority is trying to charge me twice to comply with the State Law. My city is a ground water agency as is the County. I pay once through my city water bill for it to comply and the County is attempting to make me pay a portion of everyone else’s in these troubled basins with my County tax dollars.

    In this particular case I don’t care about the political affiliation of any of the Supervisors nor should anyone else as this is not a Liberal or Conservative issue. Anyone with half a brain can see being charged twice is not fair or equitable. All tax payers/voters in the Cities or those who live in the other the County Service Agencies should realize they are getting hosed. Everyone should be livid that our Supervisors attempted to do this without any input or feedback from their constituents as to whether is this is a good or bad idea.

    (0) 20 Total Votes - 10 up - 10 down
  3. jacksprat says:

    Here is the verbatim key paragraph from Grewal’s January 27, 2017 and is signed by “Gregory T. Grewal:”

    “4. After various conversations with the current BOS supervisors (confidentially) they are going to declare the county the GSA (with regards to SGMA.) This action is to happen in the immediate future. They have no intentions of charging extra fees, as the County flood control board already performs all the actions required in the GSA, is already doing all the studies, etc. mandated by the state and will continue to do so. They already collect county taxes for this purpose and so have no need to raise fees or charge a new tax.” Boom! This is exactly how the vote went down and their is little question it was not preordained.

    So is Grewal and his supporters denying he wrote this paragraph and personally signed this letter? He said “After various conversations with the current BOS supervisors…” do you think he was referring to Peshong, Arnold and Compton or Hill and Gibson? Peshong and Compton are quoted as saying they never met with Grewal to talk about the Paso Robles Basin. Arnold is not denying it. Does this mean they’ve only never met at their County offices? Have they ever talked at campaign events or other public or private gatherings? We all know how this works. Someone is not telling the truth and it’s not looking good for Grewal and it looks like some of the Supervisors are really parsing their words. The truth more likely will be found in what is not being said.

    (6) 28 Total Votes - 17 up - 11 down
    • CrisPow says:

      Greg Grewal is Debbie Arnold’s representative on the water resource commission, so of course they have talked. John Peschong was clear in his campaign speeches that he supported county control of all of the basins. Don’t know about Lynn Compton.

      Before the Phillip’s 66 vote, both Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson said they were opposed. That did not constitute a serial meeting even if three supervisors had stated their views before the meeting.

      First, the meeting has to be in person or through a representative of one of the supervisors. All five supervisors are permitted to give their views to the same member of the public and that is not a Brown Act violation. It is a regular event for members of the public to lobby supervisors.

      Second, the supervisors have to agree on how they are going to vote together.

      Using an anonymous manipulated letter to start a witch hunt is low, even for this group.

      As for your claim that supervisors are not permitted to speak to one another at events is ludicrous. Three supervisors cannot discuss county business aside from public meetings. And I have seen three supervisors at multiple events and fund raisers, including all five current board members. Just being at the same function is not a Brown Act violation. You should look the Brown Act up on line before making baseless allegations.

      (17) 29 Total Votes - 23 up - 6 down
      • jacksprat says:

        Focus Cris. Did Grewal write the letter and sign it? We all know how the system works. There are many ways to skin the cat as is said and it appears that is what has happened here. Brown Act violations are tough to prove. It doesn’t mean however that the three majority Supervisors had no clue about how they all were going to vote before they met in session. The Grewal letter illustrates this perfectly.

        (-5) 21 Total Votes - 8 up - 13 down
        • CrisPow says:

          Greg Grewal said his daughter wrote the letter and three people signed it, including Greg Grewal. I gather someone manipulated the letter by removing the other signatures to make it look like a serial meeting by a supervisors representative acting as a hub. They probably removed Mike Cervi’s name because of his felony conviction.

          Even so, the statement that three supervisors plan to vote against a water district controlled by big money does not evidence a serial meeting unless Greg Grewal was used as a representative of Arnold to get a vote agreement. As John Peschong and Lynn Compton had both been very public about their views against the water district that failed in North County and state control, a great many people in North County expected Peschong and Compton would vote for county control.

          At the same time, Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson’s support for a water district controlled by large land owners or state control is well known. Most people who watch government expect both Hill and Gibson to vote not to fund the people in the fringe areas. Not a Brown Act violation.

          (3) 9 Total Votes - 6 up - 3 down
          • just4fun says:

            Chris- It begs any credibility that Grewal’s daughter typed the letter. He is the self proclaimed “water guy.” Why would she be writing these letters all of a sudden? Who is she? I don’t think I have ever heard of her so what weight would her signature have? As to the 3 signatures and any other insinuations, why doesn’t he just produce the letter that his daughter supposedly wrote? Why aren’t the other three rushing to lay claim here? I call Bravo Sierra here.

            The reality is these three Supervisor’s were most likely not doing anything out of the ordinary for ANY Supervisor’s in respect to policy, in a bigger picture. They got caught up because they got a little sloppy and they included Grewal who had to broadcast the details in writing, (or have his daughter do it. wink, wink)

            Had he stated something along the lines of what you wrote about it being common knowledge there would be nothing there. However, he didn’t so don’t try and replace his words about confidential meetings with something more benign.

            (3) 7 Total Votes - 5 up - 2 down
          • jacksprat says:

            The Supervisors will not be voting for or against a water district. That is a LAFCO responsibility although two sit on the Commission. As I said above, the Supervisors want to take tax dollars from others to pay for County Compliance within the Paso and other high risk basins without asking anyone. Brown Act, Schmown Act, this is a bad decision. I have a copy of the letter with Grewal’s signature. He’s not denying it. Saying it was altered, etc. is like yelling “squirrel!” It always happens. When one gets caught they try and claim they’re the victim. It’s not working.

            (0) 8 Total Votes - 4 up - 4 down
      • oneinthesame says:

        I think you are mistaken on your points regarding the Brown Act, it defines a meeting as “…any congregation of a majority of the members…at the same time and place to hear, discuss, or deliberate upon any item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction…”. Additionally, in 2009, the Brown Act was amended to prohibit a “series of communications of any kind, directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, or take action on any item of business that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.”
        The Brown Act does consider a quorum of members at informal gatherings a violation “unless scrupulous avoidance of topics within body’s jurisdiction” is taken, although I am not sure how this could be proven.

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

    It appears all the current investigations, look at the south county investigations into Jim Hill and others, are tactics to discredit political opponents. In their emails to members, the SLO Progressives have a priority to remove Lynn Compton from office. They talk about having their members make allegations and behave as social media trolls to push their rhetoric. Now they promote an investigation they will use in the election to claim Lynn Compton was under investigation.

    Do they think most of the public are uniformed dummies they can manipulate? Why not just be honest and upfront with their agenda?

    (27) 35 Total Votes - 31 up - 4 down
  5. Jorge Estrada says:

    The crybabies can’t stand it when the masses vote against their agenda. We need to defend our voting privileges and the integrity of our representatives. The agenda of a few can’t be allowed to distort and hijack the will of the people, our inalienable rights.

    (33) 43 Total Votes - 38 up - 5 down
  6. just4fun says:

    This Grewal now admits he wrote the letter that he told the County Counsel he did not? The credibility factor here is too much to believe. What a piece of work!! I am not sure if he had serial meetings but serial lying seems to be an issue.

    (18) 40 Total Votes - 29 up - 11 down
  7. Messkit says:

    Well, as long as the SLO progressives want to be involved, you know to support Peschong, Arnold, and Compton.

    (19) 43 Total Votes - 31 up - 12 down

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