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It took forever for the state to get its act together on groundwater, but it finally did. The Legislature agreed in 2014 that the groundwater that supports agriculture and other life forms cannot continued to be mined without concern for the future, that some sort of management structure must be put in place to assure that the underground water not be pumped for profits without a mechanism to make sure that it be maintained, if not for all time, at least another century or two.

Unfortunately, the only way to do that is to create rules. And to craft and regulate those rules, bureaucracy must be created. Again unfortunately, the state left that task to the local governmental jurisdictions, many of which have spent decades or more proving their inability to manage resources. The biggest groundwater basin hereabouts is the Salinas Valley basin and it is in serious decline although a Farm Bureau leader optimistically describes it as “almost in sustainability.”

That means we pump more out of it than rain and runoff put back into it. That means we, or actually the agency created for this task, need to figure out how to take less water out or put more water in. As the escalating water woes of the Monterey Peninsula make expensively obvious, creating water is a steep challenge.

Faced with rapidly approaching deadlines, Monterey County officials have begun the task of creating the structure to manage the water of the Salinas Valley basin. They may not be off to a strong start.

As ordered by the state, there is a new Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability Agency. Its 11-member board was sworn in earlier this month, heavy with agricultural and governmental interests and painfully short on the environmental side despite the seemingly environmental bent of the assignment. Remarkably, the one seat reserved for a representative of the public went to Lou Calcagno, the former Monterey County supervisor who served almost as an unpaid lobbyist for agribusiness and development interests during his 16 years in office.

He was appointed by the current Board of Supervisors on a motion by Supervisor John Phillips from a field of three applicants. The others submitted lengthy applications with essays about their thoughts on groundwater management and made presentations to the board. Calcagno provided 20 words in writing and made no presentation.

Calcagno, a dairy operator when he isn’t politicking, is the prototypical backroom dealmaker, the ultimate good-ol-boy of Monterey County politics. He does have something of an environmentalist streak but he has been involved in so many deals over the years and has received so many campaign contributions that it becomes impossible to know whose voice you’re hearing when he speaks.

I called Phillips to ask why wanted Calcagno on board. He didn’t return the call. That’s the way he is. I didn’t call Calcagno for comment because he made it clear last time that he’s never going to return my call.

The county gets another seat as well, filled by Supervisor Luis Alejo, representing something known as GSA-eligible agencies. When I find out what that means, I will let you know.

The environment, big as it is, is represented on the 11-member board by one member and only one member. Fortunately, she’s a good one — Janet Brennan, the tireless League of Women Voters leader. She has worked as a land-use planner and is skilled in water quality issues. Probably as much as anyone in the county, she speaks with authority on environmental matters.

Things could change, possibly even for the better,  because the board is an interim creation, formed to meet some deadlines and potentially subject to wholesale revision in the fall. If that occurs, and if the board is serious about fulfilling its mission, it would be wise for it to be less weighted toward ag and politics.

The farmers will tell you, and it is true, that they are great stewards of the land and that they have led the way on water conservation. It is very true that they have altered irrigation techniques and have aggressively pursued other means to cut back on water use. But one grower engaging in all the best practices doesn’t stop the landowner next door from drilling a deeper well and putting another 100 acres, 1,000 acres into production.

Of course ag must be well represented on this board. It is the biggest user of the basin and what it produces from that water sustains most of the economy of the Salinas Valley, and more. After a year or so of government-financed start up, much of the expense of running the agency will fall to agriculture, which is not necessarily a winning formula because it solidifies the notion that ag interests are fully in control. Most of the start-up money will come from Monterey County and the city of Salinas, on about a 66 percent/33 percent split with the smaller cities responsible for another $130,000 or so.

The structure, created by a working group appointed mostly by government and ag interests, calls for four members to be appointed directly by agricultural interests and for those four to maintain special voting powers at times. Those four are  Colby Pereira of Costa Farms,  Adam Secondo of Secondo Farms, Steve McIntyre of Monterey Pacific Growers and Bill Lip, formerly of NH3 Service Co.

Pereira is president of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, which has been heavily engaged in the process. However, its  executive director, Norm Groot, indicated this week that its involvement is somewhat begrudging.

“What has astounded us is how expensive this all is, and that it is really coming down to an unfunded mandate that the state is imposing on all of the counties,” Groot told AgAlert. “It’s almost staggering how much they’ve put on us and in the end, for a basin like ours that is almost in sustainability anyway, we’re going to be spending millions and millions on this and the solution is probably far less costly.”

Other board members are:

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UPDATE: SORRY THIS DIDN’T GET POSTED EARLIER. MEETING WENT AS EXPECTED. SUPES APPROVED RANCHO CANADA PROJECT 4-0 WHILE SUPERVISOR PARKER WAS BUSY. THEY GAVE COUNTY COUNSEL CHARLES MCKEE AN EXTRA TWO YEARS ON HIS CONTRACT, MEANING IT WILL COST TAXPAYERS MORE IF THE NEW BOARD MAJORITY DECIDES TO GO A DIFFERENT DIRECTION WITH LEGAL COUNSEL. AND THE BOARD ALSO APPROVED THE MAKEUP OF A NEW SALINAS VALLEY GROUNDWATER COMMISSION HEAVILY DOMINATED BY FARMERS.

COUNTY COUNSEL COULD GET  EARLY CHRISTMAS GIFT

If you’re any kind of student of government – and many Partisan readers are – you should find Tuesday’s meeting of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors to be loaded with fascinating little subplots. It will be the last meeting for longtime supervisors Dave Potter and Fernando Armenta.

The big agenda item is the planned approval of the long-debated Rancho Canada development at the mouth of Carmel Valley, which Potter has helped keep alive for most of his two decades on the board. With Potter politically indebted to project proponents Tony Lombardo and Alan Williams, with Armenta a proud supporter of every development proposal ever placed before him and with Supervisor John Phillips clearly on board, this one appears to be a lock.

Also interesting but well below the radar, the supes are scheduled as part of their consent calendar to grant County Counsel Charles McKee another four-year contract extension even though he got a four-year contract extension just two years ago.

Here’s what that means. The current board, including lame ducks Potter and Armenta, are hoping to lock the new board, featuring newcomers Mary Adams and Luis Alejo, into four more years of McKee whether they want him or not. Yes, the new board would be able to send him off to another county somewhere but only if the county paid for the full four years or was able to fire him for demonstrably poor performance.

Armenta

McKee is a key figure in county government, helping to provide the supervisors with political and administrative strategies above and beyond his work as the county’s chief lawyer. He is considered an able lawyer but critics of the county’s role in the long-running desalination saga say McKee’s advice created huge legal bills for the county and prolonged the region’s search for solutions to its water problems.

The departure of Potter and Armenta creates real potential for a power shift on the board and the end of smooth sailing for even the most ill-considered development proposals. McKee clearly is astute enough to tailor his advice to new thinking at the board level, but the decision about the length of his tenure should be up to the new board, not the old one.

Potter

Also Tuesday, the board is scheduled to be lobbied on an important legal matter – whether the county will step up and defend the successful Measure Z anti-fracking referendum, and it is scheduled to give its stamp of approval to the farmer-heavy makeup of the new agency that will oversee the Salinas Valley groundwater supply.

California’s counties are under a new state mandate to create local agencies charged with monitoring and sustaining groundwater for the first time in state history, and each county is taking a different approach. Under bylaws written by McKee’s office, Monterey County plans to create the Salinas Valley Groundwater Sustainability agency with one person representing the environmental community and four members appointed by agricultural interests. The bylaws don’t give any particular weight to expertise.

What gets approved Thursday, and what gets postponed, would be considerably more significant than the ceremony honoring the outgoing supes for their service.

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