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By Joe Naiman
Village News reporter 

LAFCO approves municipal service review, sphere updates for RCDs

 

Last updated 3/4/2021 at 12:11pm

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Village News/Lucette Moramarco photo

The Mission Resource Conservation District office is located at 130 E. Alvarado St.

San Diego County’s Local Agency Formation Commission approved municipal service reviews for the county’s three resource conservation districts while also updating the sphere of influence for each RCD.

Separate 8-0 LAFCO board votes Monday, Feb. 1, approved the municipal service reviews for the Resource Conservation District of Greater San Diego, the Mission Resource Conservation District and the Upper San Luis Rey Resource Conservation District while approving a sphere of influence update for each RCD which does not alter the sphere boundaries. LAFCO also had a presentation and discussion on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that morning, although no board action was taken.

“This is our opportunity every five years to do a check-in and to look at the world of resource conservation services,” Keene Simonds, executive officer of LAFCO, said.

LAFCO undertakes periodic municipal service reviews for all special districts. A municipal service review evaluates services and anticipated needs. A sphere of influence study determines the boundaries best served by a particular agency.

“The commission determines what the community needs,” Simonds said.

“This is the first-ever MSR in final draft form,” LAFCO analyst Linda Heckenkamp said.

A resource conservation district does not have regulatory power but is classified as a special district and is thus subject to LAFCO governance.

“RCDs are very special and unique,” Heckenkamp said.

Draft MSRs for the three RCDs in San Diego County were discussed at the Dec. 7 LAFCO board meeting. The board did not take a formal vote that day but instead addressed the content of the draft MSRs before encouraging LAFCO staff to send the drafts to the public review and comment process.

“We really appreciate all the feedback on this first-ever MSR,” Heckenkamp said.

The MSRs recommend deferring any evaluation of functional or political consolidation to the next MSR cycle. The Feb. 1 action updated all three agencies’ spheres of influence with no changes and also adopted the recommendations to incorporate regular reviews of RCDs into subsequent MSR cycles, to collaborate with the county and the San Diego Association of Governments to develop buildout estimates for each agency and incorporate that into the next MSR, to develop in coordination with the three RCDs performance measurements, to work with stakeholders and local legislators to undertake a comprehensive revision of the RCD principal act which would include clarifying service function powers, to formalize and regulate RCD functions, to work with the three RCDs on corrective measures to ensure regulatory compliance with regard to aligning services with jurisdictional boundaries, to remind the RCDs to request and receive written LAFCO approval before entering into any agreements to provide municipal services outside of their boundaries, to improve the web communications efforts between the Upper San Luis Rey RCD and the public, to have the county consider the inclusion of erosion and sediment control plans by RCDs in the county’s permitting process and to have video recordings of the RCD board meetings.

The recommendations also include clarifying the involvement of the Upper San Luis Rey Resource Conservation District in a Groundwater Sustainability Agency. LAFCO’s Special Districts Advisory Committee has created a working group that consists of Jack Bebee, general manager of Fallbrook Public Utility District; Paul Bushee, general manager of Leucadia Wastewater District, and Kimberly Thorner, general manager of Olivenhain Municipal Water District.

“The reason they’ve been carved out is because they're very complicated,” Bebee said. “It’s a complicated answer that I don’t think is appropriate for LAFCO to finalize within the next couple of weeks.”

“The LAFCO staff recommendation to propose an addendum is not a signal or a sign that we have reached a conclusion,” Simonds said. “Whether the addendum produces a strike or a ball, that’s up to the commission to decide.”

Resource conservation districts were formed to control water runoff and prevent soil erosion. They are now also involved in watershed management, recreational area management, urban and agricultural irrigation and water use, water quality, forest land productivity and public education for children and adults. San Diego County has had as many as 15 RCDs, but consolidation reduced that number to three with the most recent consolidation occurring in 1995.

“A trend in the county as well as a trend in the state has dwindled down the number of RCDs,” Heckenkamp said.

As of 2019, the RCD of Greater San Diego had a population of 1,445,460, the Mission RCD population was 123,611 and the population of the Upper San Luis Rey RCD was 11,735. The RCD of Greater San Diego has an office in Lakeside, the Mission RCD office is in Fallbrook and the Upper San Luis Rey RCD does not have its own building but holds board meetings at the Yuima Municipal Water District office in Pauma Valley.

The RCD of Greater San Diego has a 2,889 square mile boundary and includes 13 incorporated cities as well as unincorporated land ranging geographically from Otay to Valley Center and Borrego Springs. The Mission RCD encompasses 185.2 square miles and includes Fallbrook, Bonsall, De Luz, Rainbow and a portion of the city of Oceanside. The Upper San Luis Rey RCD includes a portion of Rainbow along with Pala, Pauma Valley and Warner Springs. Its 402-square-mile boundary includes approximately 88 square miles of sovereign Indian reservation land which are not part of the RCD.

RCDs have some tax revenue.

“They’re based more on grants,” Heckenkamp said.

The RCD of Greater San Diego and the Mission RCD both perform activities which extend beyond the boundaries of their agencies. The Fire Safe Council of Greater San Diego County is part of the RCD of Greater San Diego activity and works with 41 locally formed community fire safe councils. The San Diego County Water Authority contracts with the Mission RCD to conduct agricultural water management services, residential surveys and full landscape audits.

Those activities conflict with current LAFCO restriction of the RCD activity to within its jurisdictional boundaries.

“Boundaries matter. Special districts and cities need to provide services within their service boundaries or by special agreement,” Heckenkamp said.

“If we have multiple RCDs, there should not be overlapping services or service boundaries,” Simonds said.

The state principal act for RCDs authorizes them to perform soil erosion, water conservation, wildlife enhancement and agricultural enhancement services. Any additional services would require LAFCO to activate latent powers for those services including the RCDs’ current water distribution and erosion stabilization services.

The principal act was last updated in 1971. In 2014, California adopted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act whose purpose is to strengthen local groundwater. The SGMA required local agencies to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency for high-priority and medium-priority basins by July 2017 and has a January 2022 deadline to develop plans to achieve long-term groundwater sustainability. The San Luis Rey Valley Groundwater Basin, which the Department of Water Resources defines as beginning at the confluence of the San Luis Rey River and Paradise Creek and ending at the Pacific Ocean within the Oceanside city limits, is designated as a medium-priority basin. An agency can provide DWR with a notice of election to become a GSA and work with other local agencies to develop agreements including governance structure. In June 2017, the county Board of Supervisors approved a memorandum of understanding between the county, the Yuima Municipal Water District, the Pauma Valley Community Services District and the Upper San Luis Rey RCD to develop a sustainability plan for the San Luis Rey Valley Groundwater Basin. A working group was established which also included the Rainbow, San Luis Rey, Mootamai and Pauma municipal water districts, the San Diego County Farm Bureau, DWR, the San Luis Rey Indian Water Authority and the Pala, Pauma, La Jolla, Rincon and San Pasqual tribes. Tribal involvement and DWR grants made Yuima willing to take the lead on the development of the plan, and in November 2018, the county board of supervisors withdrew the county from the MOU while maintaining the county’s involvement as a stakeholder.

Heckenkamp said that LAFCO must approve an RCD’s participation in a GSA.

“They are special districts, and they cannot self-exempt,” she said.

RCD of Greater San Diego executive director Sheryl Landrum brought up the possibility of consolidating with the Mission RCD. Under that scenario the Fallbrook office would become a field office with current Mission RCD district manager Darcy Cook as the manager of that office.

“We would be stronger together instead of just competing over funds,” Landrum said. “We do everything that Mission does. We are also very involved with agriculture.”

Landrum said she prefers that option to an option to realign the RCD boundaries with the services the Mission RCD provides.

“We don’t want to lose any of our territory. We are functioning well in all of our territory,” she said. “Changing the boundaries could make us weaker.”

Bebee has experience with consolidation efforts; in 2015 LAFCO rejected a proposal to consolidate FPUD with the Rainbow Municipal Water District.

“Consolidation is good when both parties want the consolidation,” Bebee said. “Over time we have to address this.”

Functional consolidation can be a test for potential jurisdictional consolidation, and it can also be an alternative to consolidation of boundaries.

“Everyone needs to trust each other,” Bebee said. “I think a slow approach is better.”

An out-of-area service agreement is another potential solution.

“The law allows agencies to enter into a memorandum of understanding with one another and sometimes these agreements don’t have to go to LAFCO,” Simonds said.

“MRCD is very interested in working collaboratively with other RCDs and with LAFCO,” Cook said.

Gary Arant, general manager of Valley Center Municipal Water District is also a member of LAFCO’s Special Districts Advisory Committee.

“I do agree that boundaries matter, but I kind of look at Mission’s services as more educational and intellectual,” he said.

Arant said that the SDCWA contracts for water audits began during a drought.

“It’s been very important to sustain agriculture through several dry periods,” he said. “The services, especially for the Mission Resource Conservation District, need to be sustained.”

“We cannot afford to let these important services halt, especially when our agricultural industry is already struggling,” Hannah Gbeh, executive director of San Diego County Farm Bureau, said. “We do not want any services cut off to our farming community.”

“The growers are very appreciative of the RCDs,” Arant said.

“Mission Resource really has a connection with the other agencies that frankly Greater San Diego doesn’t at this point,” Bebee said. “In North County, we don’t want to lose that representation.”

“Rainbow’s still primarily agricultural,” Tom Kennedy, general manager of Rainbow, said. “They rely on the services that MRCD provides.”

Kennedy said that a municipal service review is about service as well as boundaries.

“It’s all about efficient service provision,” he said.

“It’s about understanding the demographics with your community, the emotional issues in your community,” Cook said.

“The community connection that's present in a region is really critical to what RCDs do,” Heather Conklin, board member of Mission RCD, said. “I want to make sure that North County and the needs of North County are actually represented by RCDs.”

Conklin noted the RCDs’ lack of regulatory power.

“It’s not necessarily about telling people what to do, but it’s about showing them how to do it,” she said.

“We have a tremendous amount of agriculture here,” Conklin said. “We need to make sure the special needs of farmers are met.”

“These services still need to be provided,” Jim Desmond, who is one of two county supervisors on the LAFCO board, said.

The deferral to the next MSR review will allow for potential arrangements including LAFCO approval of out-of-area agreements.

“We’re not oriented to take action. It’s not in our DNA to hurt end users,” Simonds said.

“What we’re doing today is accepting the report,” Desmond said. “There is no specific action that’s going to stop somebody from providing services.”

San Diego LAFCO has been working with the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts, and the municipal service reviews will be used as a primer for that organization.

“We will be a resource to them,” Heckenkamp said.

The SGMA complicates the issue of GSA latent powers.

“SGMA represents a significant policy change for the state of California and for all of us,” LAFCO analyst Priscilla Allen said.

“The state has determined that local agencies manage this basin,” Andy Lyall, board president of Upper San Luis Rey RCD, said. “This is a state law that we local agencies have to comply with.”

“RCDs have been managing groundwater all over the state,” Jeremy Jungreis, general counsel for Yuima Municipal Water District, said.

“The RCD stepped forward,” Greg Kamin, member of the Upper San Luis Rey RCD board, said.

“We like many RCDs in the state have taken on the responsibility of complying with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act,” Lyall said.

“The RCD’s participation is of utmost importance to the GSA,” Kamin said.

“This is a critical issue for three members of the GSA,” Jungreis said.

“It’s important that we remain involved because SGMA has to be managed locally,” Lyall said.

Jungreis said that no objections to the participation of an RCD in a GSA had been voiced before the municipal service review.

“No one had any problem with that in 2016,” he said.

He noted that no prior municipal service review had designated services for the RCDs.

“All of the powers by the RCD are currently active powers because nobody’s ever said otherwise,” Jungreis said.

The failure to include the RCD in the GSA could jeopardize the ability of the GSA to meet the January 2022 deadline.

“The timing on this is critical,” Arant said.

“It could be literally catastrophic for people who are trying to do the right thing,” Jungreis said.

Jungreis noted that none of the other agencies in the GSA have LAFCO latent powers approval for that activity.

“You wouldn’t just do the RCDs. You’d have to do everybody,” he said. “I just wonder if LAFCO is opening up a Pandora’s box.”

The county has three GSAs which also cover the Borrego Springs San Pasqual Valley basins. The city of San Diego and the county of San Diego are the partners for the San Pasqual Valley Basin GSA.

“We would need to proceed with caution,” Chris Cate, who is the San Diego City Council member on the LAFCO board, said.

Jungreis noted that a groundwater service agency has no authority to adjudicate water rights.

“We haven’t focused on groundwater management being a public municipal service,” Simonds said.

“This is a pretty complicated issue,” LAFCO board chair Andy Vanderlaan, who is the public member on the board, said.

“If everyone's willing to come to the table I think we can come up with an approach,” Jungreis said.

The subcommittee expects to make a recommendation in March.

“I’m OK with potentially looking at this but not necessarily approving it at this time,” Desmond said. “We’ve got to really proceed with caution here.”

For more information about Mission Resource Conservation District, visit https://www.loc8nearme.com/california/fallbrook/mission-resouce-conservation/6125711/

Joe Naiman can be reached by email at [email protected]

 

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