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The complex task of regulating the Paso Robles groundwater basin

On Monday, the bill was awaiting assignment to a Senate committee where lawmakers will haggle over amendments. Some of those amendments include opening the hybrid district board memberships to non-landowners. The lead Paso Robles organizations that are behind the bill, the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) and Pro Water Equity sent letters accepting the amendments.

The proposed hybrid district board will have 9 seats: 2 seats to be held by large landowners voted in by owners of more than 400 acres; 2 medium landowners voted in by owners of 40 to 400 acres; 2 small landowners voted in by owners of less than 40 acres; and 3 at-large members open to both landowners and renters and voted in by all registered voters.

One of the main reasons the idea of a hybrid district was hatched is to prevent the largest landowners from dominating the board and making it fulfill their interests. Groundwater is dangerously low and many people we spoke with cite the nightmare scenario of a corporate farmer taking too much water, ruining the basin, making its money, and leaving residents and local farmers high and dry.

“We really sat down and went through many possible board make-ups, and it prevents a large owner from control,” comments Sue Luft, the President of Pro Water Equity. “In theory, small landowners and homeowners have a bigger voting advantage than the big owners because there are a lot more of us.”

But some activists like Sue Harvey, President of North County Watch, are disturbed by the voting structure of the proposed district. She says one-person-one-vote is the way to go because it follows the principles of democracy. “At least if it’s one-person-one-vote, they can vote somebody out of office.”

Harvey admits that a popularly elected board could end up being controlled by large landowners or it could have a majority not connected to agriculture, acting against the interests of the $1.46 billion Paso wine industry. “A lot of damage can be done,” she says. “It still comes back to the democratic side of it.”

Sue Luft comments the hybrid board is being created in a democratic manner. “Everything is transparent. Elected leaders are debating the merits and amending the proposal. Our situation is a special one and we have a lot to lose if we end up with an ineffectual governing body.”

The idea of ineffectiveness rings loudly with John Crossland, a board member of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions and the President of Vineyard Professional Services. “Regardless if it was a one-person-one-vote to allow the formation of the district, the funding comes down to land ownership.”

Proposition 218 gives landowners the right to vote on what they have to pay for. So, a board that presents an unpopular proposal to its constituents would have a difficult time getting much passed since landowners wield a sort of referendum power to vote not to fund.

Crossland believes the hybrid district is far more desirable than installing a one-person-one-vote structure or adjudicating the basin. He says he doesn’t want homeowners or farmers to be put in a defensive position. “I know it sounds cliché but it isn’t, we’re in this together and have to solve this together. That’s why we’re proposing a hybrid board.”