About 15 years ago, maybe longer, I was on an Ag Tour that was tootling around back of beyond in the dusty reaches of Paso Robles. On the bus was an old, old-timey rancher who was opining loudly on how Paso Robles was in real trouble because the water table was dropping and wells were going dry and all these (then) new acres of grapevines were gonna suck the basin dry and then the community would be in one hell of a mess.
Fifteen years ago his comments were so obviously true that nobody contradicted him. Instead, everyone sagely nodded their heads and said, Alas, true, too true. The government, the powers that be, had better hurry up and do something about this or they'll be in one hell of a mess.
That was 15 years ago. Now, here I sit in the BOS Chamber to find out if this hell of a mess will be fixed or whether the Sups will kick the can down the road again. The last time this chamber was filled with so many staunch anti-government, libertarian, Tea-Party stalwarts, free-marketers was when the county was voting on a plastic bag ban. Then the chamber rang with cries against government tyranny and for Freeeeedom! Freeeedom!
Once again the usual suspects were there, only this time they were all bleating, crying, pleading that the wicked government DO SOMETHING! Like take over the water basin (quel socialistic!), institute some sort of well-drilling moratorium (Gaak! Communism!), or start water-rationing (eeek! Fascists!) With lots of finger-pointing that this problem was caused by the county in the first place since they knew -- oh, about 15 years ago, surely -- that continuing to issue well-drilling permits and building permits and water must-serves would lead directly to this crisis.
(Does all this sound familiar, Los Osos?)
Well, who could blame the BOS for doing nothing but dither. Water law and water rights in California are some of the most Byzantine and convoluted laws you can imagine, all "There Will Be Blood" straws sucking up milkshakes. As a society we haven't yet come to the conclusion that water, like air, are part of The Commons, a resource that all must share. And in California (and Texas) water is considered private property; if it's under your land, it's yours. Which means we've left ourselves to the mercy of the Tragedy of the Commons, which was beautifully illustrated a few weeks ago when the Tribune reported a sudden spike in well permits after their wonderful coverage of the dire Paso water situation appeared on the front page. It was a race to get those straws into the milkshake which, unless stopped, would result in NO more milkshake left.
Which is where Paso is headed. And why Mike Winn, long time member of WRAC (Water Resources Advisory Committe) stepped forward during public comment to urge the Board to make sure they contracted the services of water lawyers, a specialization that's critical when dealing with his area since the County, no mater what they do, are bound to get sued.
Compared to similar hearings (plastic bag hearing, the Los Osos Sewer), this one was astoundingly well-mannered, despite the high emotions. And, like all such hearings, it did have wonderful moments of weirdness and factinating fun-facts.
Delightful weirdness: The number of Anti-Agenda 21ers (a subset of the black helicopter gang who are convinced that the UN's Agenda 21 plans on taking away private property and turning us all into socialists and/or locking us away in concentration camps or something.) Many of the A-A21rs decried Agenda 21's mission statement urging a move to "sustainability." Indeed, that word "sustainable" seemed to be anathema to the A-A21ers, all of whom were apparently oblivious to what had brought them to this chamber in the first place: An overdrafted water basin caused by unsustainable water mining.
And, of course, for wonderful weirdness, Supervisor Mecham pointing out the irony of some of his constituents who always decried the evil government who then show up demanding the government fix the mess the freebooting, unregulated, private property water rights helped create. .
Alas, unsustainable water mining is par for the course since there really is no way to regulate water in this state, since it's "private property." You own the land, you own the well, you own the water and you're entitled to take your historical allotments, no matter what's happening under the ground. In rural well-owning Paso, that means that there's really no structure in place to organize and regulate what is, really, a Commons, (the water basin underlying the region) unless you start from scratch and the well owners (water owners) form and then vote in such a water district, a long, complicated process that takes time, the one thing Paso doesn't have. So a good deal of the day's discussion centered around finding a way to create such a district or cooperative plan that did not require going through LAFCO or mean reinventing the wheel, or adapting plans developed in other counties in order to avoid adjudication, a process that also can take years and years and cost millions.
Luckily, the stakeholders in this critical battle had formed a Blue Ribbon Committee to tackle some of the issues and bring the stakeholders together, but their work would have to be part of long time solution, if it could be done at all outside of the adjudication framework.
Since water is private property, one weird kink in the road became immediately apparent: wells aren't metered or monitored and even if they were, the information gained is private and proprietary. When I asked a lady next to me why water use would be secret, she informed me the info is kept private out of fear that if it were made public, the well owners could be targeted, as in shamed and blamed for being a water-waster, etc. (There was sufficient finger-pointing blame in the chamber already, with the large grape growers being portrayed as greedheads responsible for drying up a homeowner's well -- a scenario that had more than a whiff of the turn of the century land and water wars that pitted cattle barons against the little sod busters.)
However, it's pretty hard to really get good data on actual water use when nobody's monitoring it. So, for now, agencies charged with water planning have to go by guess and by god and hope they're numbers are close enough. And that vagueness carries over into the geology of water as well. As we learned in Los Osos, even the best water experts have to hedge their numbers because what really happens deep under the earth is often a by-gosh and by-God guestimate even by the best water witches.
It also became clear that the current emergency ordinance had been crafted by non-ranching/farming tenderfeet who were trying to cobble together some off-the-shelf mechanisms not particularly suited to agricultural needs. So some time was spent dickering over the banning/not banning of storage water ponds. Apparently those ponds are part of best practices for many ranchers -- a source of emergency water to use as frost protection, fire protection if needed, wildlife habitat, etc. However, it also seemed clear that some big grape growers just got greedy and went and built ponds holding 40--50 acre feet of water that was like a thumb in the eye of their neighbors since that waster was now no longer in the ground and no longer available to a neighbor whose well just ran dry for want of 40-50 acre feet of water. Plus, water ponds lose water to high evaporation rates during Paso's hot summers, a water loss a community in drought can't really afford.
And so it went throughout the day and well into the evening. Eventually, about 7 p.m. Chairman Bruce started his famous Enough With This Dickering, Now We're Going To Do What I Want drill- down, his famous relentless parsing that pulls out bits and pieces and gets straw votes on each, then on to another straw poll piece, until you can tell that everyone's both tired and confused and now overwhelmed by looking at constantly changing scrolling gobblegook strikeouts, hurry-hurry-hurry. Meanwhile, Debbie Arnold kept fussing and fidgeting and trying to put in amendments or minor changes only to have them parsed and pulled apart and challenged by an eye-rolling Gibson until you could just tell Debbie just sort of gave up and voted, fine, fine, whatever, Jeeze.
But she didn't look too happy. Mecham did, declaring "I got everything I wanted."
Now, of course the heavy lifting must start. There's been promised financial help in the form of the county waiving the permit fees for re-driling a new well, which will help a bit, and talk of private fundraising to help those distressed families in the finest farming/ranching help-your-neighbor-out tradition, the ordinance will be in effect for 45 days with a chance for renewal and revision to work out the bugs, and now The Blue Ribbon Committee has its work cut out for it if it's to bring all the major stakeholders together to find a way to sort this overdraft out and form some kind of management district. It's going to be a long, painful slog and the record of success without going to a court process is probably slim to none, given the players.
The cattle barons of old have been replaced with wine-making mega corporations, and the little sod-busters are now teachers and plumbers and small business owners and retirees with a dream of owning a little place in the country, not exactly 20 acres and a mule, more like one acre of heaven and a pony, maybe a vegetable garden. But this time the scenario has a new wrinkle. There may now be no winners and losers, just losers.
In a time and place of abundance, this would be an easy lift. In an era of growing scarcity and unsustainable growth, even the big players can lose it all as well. No water is. . . no water, whether you have 1 acre or 8,000. Paso, like the rest of the state, is in for hard, hard times. The climate deniers, the Anti-Agenda 21ers, anti-regulation boys may need to follow an old piece of advice given by a grizzled platoon sergeant to a young lieutenant puzzling over a map while out on maneuvers: "If the map don't agree with the ground, then the map is wrong."
Time for all of us to look at the ground.