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Opinion: Paso Robles Groundwater Basin in crisis? 

To the editor:

By Jim Olesnanik
Templeton, CA.

Am I the only one who feels strongly that the San Luis Obispo Board of Supervisors (BOS) ,both past and present, have thrown the residents of north county under the bus? It doesn’t matter to me if they are pressured by the highest level of California politics or by very wealthy and politically connected individuals, or both. The BOS has a responsibility to work for the common good of all of the residents…..I don’t believe they have done that.

I am going to present facts, as I see them, but first I would like to state that I do not have anything against agriculture, more specifically, vineyards. My wife and I enjoy wine and are members of several wine clubs. I do believe that the BOS has focused almost entirely on growth without regard to the residents of the county.

I don’t think there can be any question about the fact that we are in a drought situation in the State of California that has been described as one of the worst in recorded history but, does that mean the Basin is in “crisis”? In the 20th century almost a third (29%) of the 100 years were drought years. In the 21st century 6 of the first 14 years (42%) have been drought years. Obviously the impact of droughts on water supply is of concern and in need of monitoring.

As many of you may know the members of the BOS serve a dual roll as the Flood Control and Water Conservation District. In these rolls they:

  • Monitor approximately 320 (mostly private) water wells.
  • Receive and share data with other government agencies.
  • Maintain well drilling logs (not available for public access).
  • Participate in a network of stream flow gauges.
  • Coordinate the gathering and analysis of precipitation data.
  • Hire private companies to analyze and report on the condition of the Basin.
  • Have total and complete knowledge of the drought history of California.
  • Receive studies from the Planning and Building Department that measure estimated water supply vs. current and anticipated demand as related to proposed development.

My interpretation of the above-listed efforts would be that the BOS was monitoring the Basin water supply in order that they could make educated decisions relative to growth and demands on the water supply. I think that would be a responsible thing to do.

It has been reported that, since 1997, the basin has dropped over 70 feet in some locations. We also know that one member of the BOS participated in a study of the Paso Basin in 2003 and again in 2006. The result both times (as reported by the Supervisor) was that the Estrella/El Pomar area was an area of concern. Additionally, during the period 1997 and 2007 acreage devoted to vineyards and low-density residential increased by astronomical proportions. If the BOS had knowledge (and they would have) of declines in the Basin why wouldn’t they have taken action to reduce the pressure on the water supply while seeking remedies? Why wouldn’t they have declared an overdraft? Also, if the results of two separate Basin studies clearly identified an “area of concern” (Estrella/El Pomar) why wouldn’t the BOS have taken some action to protect the residents of that area? Instead, in this “area of concern” is a previously dry farmed 700 acres (on El Pomar and So. El Pomar) which was purchased, numerous deep wells drilled and several huge ag ponds created and grapes planted. Of even greater interest is the fact that the new owner of this land (Mr. Stewart Resnick of Roll Enterprises, Figi Water, Justin Winery, and others) is the same individual who (along with four other state water project contractors), in December, 1994 , in a backroom deal was GIVEN what is currently known as the Kern County Water Bank. The California State Department of Water Resources, after spending over $70 million of taxpayer money on the project, felt inclined to give it away! I believe the reason Mr. Resnick is in our area has far more to do with the Paso Water Basin and water delivery systems than it does with growing grapes. For those of you who don’t know, Mr. Resnick is a significant contributor to both political parties and very close friend of Governor Brown and, Mr. Resnick is not the only potential Water Basin predator in our area.

I believe that if a water district is needed, it should be for agricultural purposes only. I am concerned that AB 2453, recently signed by Governor Brown serves only one purpose, to create a new source of revenue (assessments) to do the job that the BOS should have been doing all along. We are told that we will have “local control” over the Basin. I don’t believe that to be true. AB 2453 clearly states that neither the BOS nor the Flood Control and Water Conservation District (FCWCD) will have their authority affected by the creation of the district. What this means to me is that the BOS will continue with their totally uncontrolled growth agenda and the water district will spend more and more money (increased assessments) to increase water flow to the Basin in an attempt to keep it in balance. We don’t need this water district (AB 2453). We need a BOS and the FCWCD that will do their jobs!

In addition to being against State law, if a water district is established who will be impacted the most? It is true that the large property owners will write larger assessment checks than rural home owners. However, as businesses they have available to them a number of ways in which they can recover these costs. Rural residents, on the other hand, do not have the capability to increase their paycheck, retirement or Social Security checks when new financial obligations arise.

The County instituted the currently existing two year Urgency Ordinance. It is supposed to significantly restrict or prohibit new plantings, new well drillings, etc. It also created a 1 for 1 offset requirement for new water uses. It’s been well over a year since the implementation of the Ordinance and the County still does not have a handle on it! There is a significant amount of activity taking place in the rural communities that appear to be contrary to the terms and intent of the Ordinance. All the County would have to do is drive the country roads.

Attached to the Urgency Ordinance is this thing called “vested interest”. As I understand it, vested interest is designed to prevent a vineyard owner from financial hardship that would occur if they were required to stop work on a project which had been undertaken and committed to financially.

Comments:

In the first place, if the Basin is truly in “crisis” why would the BOS allow any exceptions to the Ordinance? There are many risks business owners must confront. Certainly not the lease of which is the financial impact of actions taken by government (local, state, federal…doesn’t matter). The planting of a vineyard is a business risk and owners should not have been given a free pass.

Secondly, I believe that most (if not all) of any potential financial losses which would have been claimed by vineyard owners, could have been avoided altogether.

Finally, while the County BOS has gone out of their way to protect vineyard owners I would ask them, who is more “vested” than the rural homeowner? What about their financial hardship? Rural residents have put hundreds of thousands, and often millions of dollars into their properties. If wells have gone dry due to declining water levels in the Basin, and the BOS had advance knowledge of the decline and did nothing to prevent the dry wells and potential real estate value losses, these residents should have new wells drilled at no cost to them. How can they possibly justify a situation where a business (vineyard) is guaranteed not to lose money as a result of government action and have rural homeowners bare the financial burden of the same governments actions?

I believe there was an almost panic situation created over declining water levels in the Basin, wells going dry, etc. There is reason to be concerned about action taken and the accuracy of information presented. For example, what information and (who provided it) did PRAAGS and PRO WATER EQUITY (discussed later) receive that motivated them to hire lawyers, formalize their structures and aggressively spread the word of their respective missions? Since well drilling information is, by State law, prohibited from public access these groups must have received their information via word-of-mouth, and that is very difficult to believe. More recently Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, in the September 17, 2014 issue of the Tribune, said “Over 300 wells went dry in a five-month period this year”. He followed that statement by saying “Therefore, the need for this legislation is immense.” Since the State prohibits access to well drilling information Mr. Achadjians statement cannot be verified and therefore only serves to stoke the fire of public concern, whether rightly or wrongly. If the information cannot be verified, it shouldn’t be presented. What emerged initially was two groups, followed in short order by a third. I’ve been to meetings of all three. Here are my comments:

PRAAGS ( PASO ROBLES AGRICULTURAL ALLIANCE FOR GROUNDWATER SOLUTIONS): This is a group of mostly, if not all, vineyard owners. They claimed support from about 30 of the largest land owners in the north county. While they said that they wanted to control the district for the benefit of all, their actions said otherwise. They anticipated that the creation of the district would be voted based on one acre, one vote and the 30 large landowners controlled well over 50% of the land in the voting area. This was clearly an attempt to muscle their way into control of the proposed district for their benefit. The voting structure was later changed in Sacramento. Their president has recently written a letter in which he states that PRAAGS was never in favor of exporting water from the Basin. This is contrary to statements made by others in his group and, if they felt so strongly about it, why wasn’t it specifically stated in the version of AB 2453 that went to Sacramento? They also have, as members I believe, individuals who have ties to Stewart Resnick, referred to earlier, who purchased and planted grapes on So.El Pomar. Most importantly, vineyards/wineries are businesses, and in this area they are big business and a big benefit for the local economy. As business people they are going to do whatever they must in order to protect their income source. Make no mistake about it, the residents of the county are a secondary concern, at best, to them.

PRO WATER EQUITY: This is a group that represented itself as supporting the rural home owner. other things they stated that they would not waiver in their position that, if a district was created, it would be controlled by the residents of the north county to insure their interests were being looked after. The organization began to unravel when the President (Sue Luft) compromised their stated position. That and other actions led to the resignations of most of the original founders of the group. Additionally, the engineering firm, of which Ms. Luft is a principal, has had business dealings with….you guessed it….entities owned by the same individual who purchased and planted grapes on the 700 acres on So.El Pomar…Mr. Stewart Resnick!

POWR (Protect Our Water Rights): This effort was started by the Steinbeck family and six other local property owners. It’s mission is simple……to protect the legal right of land owners to access the water, under our properties, for “reasonable and beneficial use” as is guaranteed by California law. To this end POWR members have taken legal action. There are no hidden agendas, no affiliations with those who intend to profit from the sale of water and, instead of declining, the membership has been growing significantly. The reason is simple…people believe in the message, the actions taken and want to protect their water rights.

Residents should not sit back and hope that this problem will simply go away. We need to get educated and we need to get organized. Time is of the essence. Take an hour of your time and attend a meeting at the Steinbeck vineyard and winery. We don’t want to be looking back and thinking that we should have done something. It’s not too late. There is another bus coming…be on it…not under it.

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