Same folks scheming for Paso Robles water basin control

December 31, 2019

By DANIEL BLACKBURN and KAREN VELIE

Three years after county voters soundly rejected a controversial bid for private control of the Paso Robles water basin, a small, resurgent group of wealthy, politically-connected landowners has quietly escalated efforts to “bank” water in the voluminous North County aquifer. [Cal Coast Times]

Enlisting a powerful slate of individuals and entities — including a state board president, several political candidates, and local media—to bolster their claims, former proponents of a failed water district are seeking state assistance in promoting plans to store Paso Robles’ recycled sewer water and Nacimiento Lake water in the basin.

Control of the basin and access to its contents has been the object of a decades-long struggle between various landowner elements, a battle exacerbated by several consecutive dry years in the region.

Five former members of the now-defunct Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) are falsely alleging that state water officials are “concerned” that two county supervisors are preventing local farmers from providing input into management of the Paso Robles basin.

Years of discussions, arguments, planning, and scheming crashed after voters in 2016 rejected a proposed tax-supported water management agency. PRAAGS spent more than $300,000 to promote their district concept; their opponents spent less than $20,000.

Concerned primarily with the prospect of water banking and a loss of rights, 77.83 percent of landowners rejected PRAAGS’ proposed basin management agency.

Even so, proponents of the failed private water district have continued to seek approval to bank outside sources of water in the Paso Robles basin; those plans anticipate local taxpayers will underwrite the cost of necessary infrastructures.

At a July 2 California Food and Agriculture board meeting, two of the former PRAAGS officials, Jerome Lohr and Jerry Reaugh, asked the state agency to consider their concerns that the SLO County Water Resources Advisory Committee was not providing them opportunities to discuss basin water management. Lohr and Reaugh objected to plans for all users to cut back 20 percent of their water usage.

Dana Merrill

Following public comment, the State Board of Food and Agriculture voted to have Board President Don Cameron “consider input on Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) implementation process in San Luis Obispo County,” according to minutes of the meeting.

On Aug. 29, former PRAAGS board member Dana Merrill sent a letter also requesting the state’s intervention in promoting plans to store recycled sewer water in the basin. Merrill owns Mesa Vineyard Management, a business that that has planted vineyards for Stewart Resnick and Harvard Investments, two primary proponents of PRAGGS’s plan for a privatized water district, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

A day later, on Aug. 30, three former members of PRAAGS — Lohr, Willy Cunha and Reaugh — sent letters echoing Merrill’s request.

Randy Record

Last to request the state’s assistance was Randy Record, who sent his letter on Sept. 1. Record was an early adviser to individuals who would eventually form PRAAGS. Record is immediate past chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District, the world’s largest wholesaler of water, and remains a board member. His family owns a small vineyard in this county.

Without the state board’s approval, Cameron sent a Sept. 30 letter to San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Debbie Arnold, scolding her for not allowing “innovative, progressive farmers and ranchers” to have opportunities to “develop solutions.”

A few weeks later, the SLO New Times incorrectly reported that the state board had sent the letter.

Political opponents of supervisors Arnold and John Peschong repeated claims the state was concerned with the county’s management of the basin. Ellen Beraud, challenging Arnold in the 2020 election, said she was dismayed at the committee’s lack of engagement with farmers.

Stephanie Shakofsky, who is seeking Peschong’s seat in the 2020 election, said the supervisors were not thinking outside the box, before she suggested, on KVEC’s Dave Congalton radio show, storing recycled Paso Robles sanitation water in the basin.

On Oct. 18, Record thanked Cameron in an email for the letter that prompted the New Times article.

“Thanks, Randy,” Cameron responded in the Oct. 19 email. “Hope you are doing well. Glad to see we got their attention and are supportive of the growers’ situation in the Paso area.”

In response to the allegations the county had failed to engage the community, county supervisors, in an Oct. 24 letter to Cameron, noted seven stakeholder outreach workshops; 11 Paso Basin Cooperative Committee meetings; 10 newspaper articles announcing or summarizing the meetings; and 11 updates reported during supervisor meetings.

“Had you contacted the County of San Luis Obispo, you would have learned that we not only have a long history of engaging our agricultural community, but that we have also been a statewide leader in seeking a collaborative solution to manage the groundwater in the Paso Robles basin prior to SGMA (Sustainable Groundwater Management Act), and that our SGMA efforts on outreach and engagement far exceed the state’s standard,” according to the letter.


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norco

Being featured and even getting my picture as well, I will respond to the article in brief. Some points:

1. I was not contacted by either of the authors which seems to be poor press protocol. My dad was a newspaper editor for many years and I know that at least you wind up with a “No Comment”, in my case I have not been asked to comment or confirm their article

2. The defeated AB2453 water district which would have covered the entire Paso Robles Basin and subsequently voter approved districts in Shandon (SSJ District) and Estrella-El Pomar-Creston (EPC) district were all proposed Public districts, not private. They were and are subject to all of the same “Brown Act” rules that government entities operate under, including the Board of Supervisors. Any of these meetings are open to the public, require agendas in advance and typical rules.

3. Many of us commercial growers, which include a wide range of landowners from less than 20 acres to several thousand acres, feel we need to be included more directly in the planning for the future. We do not object to smaller rural landowners having their voice. I have worked to encourage all irrigators, including the largest ones, to join the effort to find solutions to balancing the Basin and also to completing with the new SGMA law to be enforced by the State. I strongly believe its better to spend money on solutions, not lawyers and the court room if at all possible.

4. The SSJ District is also a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), one of 4. The EPC District was not approved to be a GSA due to a change from a universal initial 5-0 approval at the supervisors, a few months later turning into a 3-2 denial. While that was disappointing, EPC remains a district committed to positive contributions toward solving the problem. But County has a duty to represent us since it denied us representing ourselves.

5. Irrigated agriculture is a major economic driver locally from tourism to real estate. Many millions of retirement and investment fund dollars are invested in the wine grape industry via loans, equity investments and generate major property and sales tax income to the County and cities. Related business including equipment, vehicle, paving and construction, direct employment have turned a dying downtown in Paso Robles into a booming destination today. Most of us have 401K or IRAs, those funds are invested to provide a return for retirees.

6. No export has been proposed or envisioned and it is banned by both the County and the SGMA law.

7. We have Nacimiento Water and recycled water presently going down the river to Monterey County now. Why can we not use it? State Water we pay for as a future option, it too is emptied in the San Luis Reservoir near Los Bans when it spills and our unused share ends up in the ocean. This is water available now. Why can our Supervisors not at least reserve it to be funded by a future Prop 218 ballot measure?

Utilizing city recycled water to directly irrigate grapes, which will require blending with Nacimientno water due to relatively high salts from residents’ water softeners primarily, is feasible. The City and County hold the water rights and any additional delivery system would be funded by those who will use it and only after they vote 2/3 support to fund it. I certainly did not propose direct injection of recycled water into our aquifer and actually have had no input on any of the GSP provisions

8. More water is reserved from the State Water Project that could augment use. So far the cities and a few enlightened users such as the Santa Margarita Ranch have gotten Naci water lined up. But our main Paso Robles Basin remains ignored by past and current supervisors.


My point is that there need to be solutions considered beyond a draconian fixed 20% cut in pumping mentioned thus far. Conservation will have a role to play to but wine grapes are among the lowest water users and some supplemental supplies will be needed.


Lastly, there is no conspiracy involved. As a landowner with my net worth tied up in Ag land and farming, the 7th generation now to do so, I want my son and the 8th generation to have a chance to continue.


The vineyard industry wants to contribute positively and should not be left out of the process. Having 3 minutes at a meeting at City Hall is not adequate. We hope the GSP is successful but without those participating who use over 50% of the pumped water it will be difficult to accomplish and pay for.


obispan

And Peschong is right in the middle of it, brokering the deals, and will not be questioned in the North County as he identifies as a Republican. Could we elect Debbie Arnold as Supervisor for the the 5th AND 1st Districts?


Cindy

In the old days, the New Times would correct their errors. Their latest Shredder column is titled “No regrets,” in regards to a recent article where the writer got it all wrong, claimed two Democrats who behaved badly were Republicans. But instead of correcting, they admitted their error and said no regrets. On this issue, I doubt they will even acknowledge their error. The sad state of local media.


DocT

Water is such a precious resource, especially here in Central California.


Because it is so precious, only multi-millionaires with political ties should be allowed to control it.


We serfs cannot be trusted with water. We’ll waste it, or at best not profit massively from it, thus denying a ton of money to flow into the coffers of the super-wealthy, politically connected class—-known in the media as the “local economy.”


No, it’s best to let large corporations and criminals manage CA’s water supply for their own ends. This is fair because nearly all of us will suffer equally under this scheme.


The current situation is fraught with abuse! People actually have riparian rights. This is horrible! Only super-wealthy, politically connected people should be allowed to own water.


The rest of us should thank them for allowing us to drink it and occasionally use it to water xerescaped, tiny yards.


just4fun

Actually, we landowners have overliers rights, as riparian are from rivers. And ALL landowner, whether large or small, have overlier rights. Why do you think the quiet title was started by VINEYARD owners? Don’t fall for the Robin Hood tale here. Howie Steinbeck and his cronies who developed thousands of acres of grapes don’t care about residents in GSH or Jardine. They want to use the water before Paso Robles does


Niles Q

If I’m not mistaken, the coastal branch of the State Water Project pipeline runs right through the Paso Basin. And the County has thousands of acre feet of unused allocation available.

Why can’t these millionaire growers pay to deliver this drinking water to the homes whose wells have dried up because of their over pumping and let the growers have the dwindling ground water


just4fun

Niles is exactly correct. The County has lots of extra water, but Debbie and John won’t let it be delivered to anyone here except the Cities and the Santa Margarita Ranch owners (Big Republican Donors). The excess goes unused here and sold to Resnick and LA for pennies on the dollar…. NO IRONY THERE!


IronHub

Irony? I would call this comment BS. Sounds like Adam Hill or one of his clones.


just4fun

Do your research. Look who holds the rights to state water in SLO County. Look what happens when we don’t use our state water. (Hint – it gets distributed back to other state water owners, with more than half going to Resnick and LA).


rockhound1965

I loathe the Resnicks. They’d exploited California’s antiquated”water banking” system for YEARS, only because they are filthy rich.

To me…they are the most evil individuals in California.

They are totally screwing California over. And politicians on both sides are allowing it. The Resnicks are their #1 contributor.

Please stop buying their products. EVERY time you do, you are giving your money to criminals. At least a homeless person says thank you.