Drought means opportunity for some
September 25, 2014
PART ONE: Water, money, need, and greed
By DANIEL BLACKBURN
California’s persistent 30-month dry period has provoked statewide cries for major changes in current water resources practices, and is sparking renewed campaigns for more dams and big water project developments.
Predictable, perhaps, but such a political reaction to drought is translating into a call to action for moneyed interests seeking to profit from this climate fluctuation — some of whom are partly responsible for exacerbating today’s water shortages.
One person’s drought horror story, it turns out, is another’s cornucopia of opportunities.
It is, for example, a most fortunate confluence of events for some San Luis Obispo County businesses and individuals, who have banded together to craft a concept — and draft a legislator or two — hoping to create a special water district to manage the massive Paso Robles water basin.
Their interest is understandable. Almost without exception, proponents of the district are the very people, corporations, or public agencies culpable in over-drafting the aquifer in order to proliferate seemingly endless vineyard production and tourist growth, ignoring the looming but undeniable specter of critical water shortage.
A demand for the resource in the North County has swollen exponentially and now the wine-rich region has a built-in, irreversible need for ever-increasing supplies of water.
All the while, the city of Paso Robles — the aquifer’s most aggressive user and an entity that won’t be part of any future water district — is optimistically approving construction of a parade of large hotels, spas, and other water-using, tourist-oriented businesses.
This surge of demand has created the potential for a financial bonanza if a water district can successfully be formed: board members would acquire total control over a resource with an estimated worth of more than $106 billion dollars. (At a Los Angeles conference on groundwater hosted by Cadiz last summer, noted economist David Sunding opined that 300,000 acre-feet of “storage capacity” in a basin has an actual value of $1 billion dollars. The Paso basin, the largest west of the Rockies, contains 31.9 million acre-feet of storage capacity. And this capacity is as valuable as the actual water that might occupy the space.)
Faced last spring with potential collapse of the area’s very economy as the dry period lengthened and worsened and local water stores shrank, a group coalesced, comprised of vintners, wine industry marketeers, and ranchers. It became the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), and its objective has been to form a water district to allow control of the basin’s supply.
This confederation was joined by four individuals, working under the label of PRO Water Equity, and together they championed controversial legislation carried by Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo).
While his bill, AB 2453, worked its way through the Legislature, a larger water issue was being debated by lawmakers, one that could be exploited to help grease the skids for approval of a water district.
With the entire western United States entering a fourth year of paucity of precipitation, California officials last year began — for the first time since the Gold Rush — to take a closer and more serious look at the management practices governing pumping from the state’s 157 underground water aquifers. What studies found was that few, if any, of those basins were being managed to any degree. And that made California the only state in the West that did not comprehensively manage those underground waters.
That set into motion a campaign by Gov. Jerry Brown for legislation calling for groundwater “reform” — resulting in successful passage this summer of a package of new laws which will begin creation of a statewide management system. New laws require that local groundwater agencies be formed by 2017, and that so-called “sustainability plans” be in place by 2020.
Also required will be reporting of groundwater conditions to water officials, which might eventually allow some kind of cognizance of statewide subterranean conditions.
This reform effort became a cudgel used by North County water district promoters to float the spurious claim that the state would swoop in to regulate the Paso basin if that was not accomplished locally.
The state agency initially caused local concern by informing supervisors that “we understand that the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin is in a state of serious overdraft with water levels continuing to decline.” Any “progress” made by San Luis Obispo County toward that end would be “tracked and reported back to me,” wrote Thomas Howard, the agency’s executive director.
With vigorous community activity ongoing regarding the Paso basin’s future, it would have been a very unlikely target of the new corrective legislation, officials of the state’s Water Resources Control Board (WRCB) eventually admitted.
The agency also later would concede that their source for the “overdraft” statement had been a few newspaper articles. But in the interim, the perceived threat would be used by water district proponents and their marketing company, Barnett Cox and Associates, as the primary reason for moving quickly.
And move quickly they have. The claim was bombastic enough to spur Achadjian’s legislation to the governor’s signature, and now it remains for the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) to determine ground rules for a formation election.
In the meantime, PRAAGS members have launched an effort to defeat a county proposal to ban exports of water, despite their repeated assertions that they oppose such transfers. However, critics of the district plan say that proponents are eying a system including water banking, transfers, and exchanges of water supplies and entitlements.
Jerry Reaugh, chairman of PRAAGS, wrote in a Sept. 2014 letter to county supervisors that “we believe it is inappropriate for the County to make any such determination as to the movement, transfer or delivery of groundwater outside the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.”
Reaugh said any such action is premature “until the impact of the current [groundwater legislation] is fully understood.”