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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IronHub

And has it been mentioned that privatizing this resource (the aim of these poachers) is a billion-dollar win in the long term?


JordanJ

So the Food and Ag board votes to allow Cameron to look into the issue. Instead of contacting the county and asking if they had let property owners participate in the process or googling the issue, Cameron takes his buddies word for it. Does he google his buddy and find that almost 80 percent of property owners rejected the PRAAGS groups plans? Or was this just a plan to manipulate the process, who cares about a vote of the people, or what the small farmer or property owner wants.


Then, without board approval, he sends a letter on board letterhead and claims “we” sent the letter. I wonder if this is a Brown Act violation.


So these big growers, most of whom planted huge amounts of grapes while the urgency ordinance was winding through the system, want to bank water so they don’t have to cut back, everyone else will have to deal with the pharmaceuticals from recycled waste water. Also, as soon as this group begins banking water, they will gain a superior right to the water.


Both Peschong and Arnold voted not to allow these wealthy PRAAGS farmers to sell water rights. After they planted the grows pre-urgency ordinance, they then wanted to dig them up and sell the rights. Peschond and Arnold also do not want to allow them to bank sewer water in the basin, in line with the vote of the people. So now they have two political opponents who could care less that almost 80 percent of the public rejected the PRAAGS plan. Peschong’s work to support a vote of the public shows integrity, not a conflict of interest.


Jim Wortner

Daniel Blackburn and Karen Velie raise some good points in this editorial with the recent history and the PRAAGS players involved in their attempt at controlling the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.


One issue they missed (or forgot) is the Steinbeck Vineyards LLC overlayers’ Quiet Title Lawsuit for large property owner ground water rights. This 5 year lawsuit included a group of about 600 large property landowners in North County with Supervisor John Peschong as one of the property owners.


This lawsuit was recently concluded on September 24, 2018 versus San Luis Obispo County, San Luis Obispo County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, City of Paso Robles, San Miguel Community Service District, Templeton Community Services District and Atascadero Water Company as defendants.


Unfortunately, this self serving lawsuit cost all of us North County taxpayers unnecessary legal fees and countless hours of county and city administrative wasted time. Fortunately, the final court verdict protects the public water suppliers right to pump groundwater to supply its residents. The verdict in this case was consistent with California policy that the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water, to be followed by irrigation.


Fast forward to today’s editorial and the big question becomes…


How did Supervisor John Peschong objectively chair the Sustainable Groundwater Committee for SLO County when there was an obvious conflict of interest between county/city purveyor ground water rights and those of his large property owners overlyers’ ground water rights?


Something really smells bad here – and it is not the cannabis grows forced next door to residential agriculture homes that Supervisor John Peschong has endorsed by his Board of Supervisor votes.


oldtimer

Interesting, not to mention York Mountains Mcphees giving him campaign donations and his favoritism over them vs local hemp growers.


JordanJ

The lawsuit has not concluded, and the purveyors did not win, There are four parts to the suit, and the one found that the purveyors had a right to a very small amount of water every year, much less than they were claiming, and a clear win for those who filed the suit.


The judge also determined that there had not been an overdraft, another clear win for those who filed the suit.


The suit is about property owners above the basin securing the right to use water in the basin, and included over 800 people who split the cost of the suit. It is not about the SGMA requirements, so John does not have a conflict of interest.


just4fun

Wait until you see the staff the County is going to add to manage the Basin and the cost that goes with it. Remember when Debbie and John said we should vote against the District because we were already paying for the Flood Control? Well, we got scammed. I hear they already know the bill is going to be in the $ millions annually but don’t want to say it publicly until after the election.


Mjd

Folks,


This article chronicles why it is important to reelect Supervisors John Peschong and Debbie Arnold.


Their challengers, Stefanie Shakofsky and Ellen Beraud, have shown that they are more than willing to sell out average people in order to serve their millionaire and billionaire agricultural ‘friends’, and we cannot trust them.


Protect the water basin by reelecting Peschong and Arnold.


MrYan

It is simple; tax pooled water at close to market value or higher. They will stop doing it post haste.


Pumping our groundwater into pools for profit should not be allowed.


They are not here for the wineries, it is what lies underneath. That’s been the plan all along.


Cindy

Ignore the vote of the people, get a state department board president to make it look like the state is upset, and attempt to pressure the supervisors to allow the banking of sewer water in the basin.


If that doesn’t work, get two newcomers, who lack the knowledge that the public already voted no to PRAAGS’ plans, to run for a seat on the board of supervisors.


If they win, these two people will vote to support the water pirates over the other 8,000 people who use the basin. Once they are permitted to bank water in the basin, they will have a superior right to the water.


oldtimer

So how I read this, Arnold and Peschong are aware of the astronomical increase of water usage from Billionares and millionaires like Firestone and Resnick, and now the wealthy are crying fowl after an attempt to privatize water and the states intervention? If this is the case, I am thankful for our elected officials. If you talk to locals, every flowing tributary has stopped flowing year round in the last 20 years. The last flow of salinas year round and atascadero creek I saw was in 2007-08, the last recorded steelhead run in North Slo county. And it’s not santa margarita lakes fault, it’s been around a long time. More reason to boycott Justin Vineyard, Firestone Beer and it’s rubber plant seed money in Africa, and every other rich psychopath destroying our humble, dry farm community. Adalaida is ruined, and they’re clearing more land for wine, I drove there a week ago.


IronHub

I can only hope that local residents recognize the powerful and nefarious interests that have lustful eyes on the North County water supply. And these interests do not ever go away. Stay vigilant.