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June 27, 2022

Regional Water Plan Draws Criticism

Hollister
– A regional plan partnering the San Benito County Water
District with two neighboring districts has come under fire from
another water agency.
Hollister – A regional plan partnering the San Benito County Water District with two neighboring districts has come under fire from another water agency.

Both the San Benito and Santa Clara board of directors have already approved the Pajaro River Watershed Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, and the directors of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency are scheduled to do the same on Wednesday. However, representatives from the Pajaro-Sunny Mesa Community Services District have written to the agencies declaring the regional plan a “fatally flawed” document.

The big problem, said Pajaro-Sunny Mesa’s attorney, Marc Del Piero, is the lack of an environmental impact report detailing the regional plan’s effects.

“This is really sort of environmental law 101,” Del Piero said.

Bruce Laclergue, the general manager of the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, said Del Piero is making “a mountain out of a molehill” – there are 50 agencies in California preparing regional water plans, and only one of them is preparing an EIR.

Laclergue said the regional plan is only a “reconnaissance-level document,” and environmental review won’t be necessary until the projects described in the plan move closer to implementation.

Sacramento attorney Bill Yeates, who hosts public education workshops about the California Environmental Quality Act and wrote the Planning and Conservation League Foundation’s “Community Guide to CEQA,” told the Free Lance that environmental review is required at the earliest possible time in the planning process.

“It can be a gray area,” Yeates said, “but if (a plan) commits an agency to a course of action, there needs to be environmental review.”

Laclergue said one reason for the dispute may be the history of antagonism between Pajaro-Sunny Mesa and the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency, both based on Watsonville. It’s an antagonism Laclergue said he doesn’t understand and wants to fix.

“To have this kind of challenge just down the street from us, we don’t really know where it’s coming from,” he said.

The regional plan lists Pajaro-Sunny Mesa’s plans to desalinate ocean water and sell it for agricultural use as a high priority, Laclergue said, but he noted that project could compete with the Pajaro Valley agency’s plans to tap into the San Felipe imported water system.

Del Piero, a former Monterey County supervisor, emphasized that Pajaro-Sunny Mesa doesn’t want to stop the plan, just make sure it undergoes the proper review. The district’s directors haven’t decided whether to take any further legal action, he added.

“I sincerely hope that the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency’s board of directors understands that the longer they ignore their legal obligation to the constituents they serve, the worse the situation will become,” Del Piero said.

He added that the district is also concerned that notices of public hearings to discuss the plan were not provided in Spanish.

According to Laclergue, the agency published Spanish notices in the water agency’s newsletters and in a Spanish-language publication in Pajaro.

Laclergue and San Benito district manager John Gregg have said the regional plan needs to be approved if local water districts want more state funding. The plan has already paid off in the form of a $25 million state grant to pay for the early stages of implementation, including $4.4 million for floodplain preservation in San Benito County.

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