Water Worries in Paso Wine Country

California region's serious overdraft on groundwater dividing community

by Andrew Adams
san luis obispo water
Decreases in groundwater elevation, brought to light by wells suddenly going dry in San Luis Obispo County, are most serious in the red areas seen above, such as Paso Robles. The above map, created for the county by GEI Consultants, denotes the change in groundwater elevation between 1997 and 2013.
Paso Robles, Calif.—Residential and agricultural wells in San Luis Obispo County are going dry at an alarming rate, triggering an at-times acrimonious debate among growers, vintners and rural residents about who’s sucking up all the water.

Earlier this month, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted to enact an emergency ordinance prohibiting the drilling of new wells to give local officials and residents time to draft a strategy to deal with the overdraft problem.

Groundwater levels had been steadily declining in the area for decades, but the problem became precipitously worse in recent years. The rapid decline in well levels coincided with a surge in large vineyard plantings. Some local residents are blaming growers, arguing excessive irrigation is to blame for the water problems. Growers, however, point out that wine grapes are now vital to the economy of Paso Robles and the greater Central Coast region, and vines use far less water and provide far greater value than other crops.

Well worries
Phillip Hart is the owner of AmByth Estate located east of Templeton, Calif., where he tends 20 acres of dry-farmed, Biodynamic vineyards. He said he chose to dry farm because he strongly believes the practice makes better wine.

Hart has a home on the property and a 540-foot well at the top of a hill. He said he had been changing the well filters every couple of months, but now he has to change them every two weeks since the water became considerably dirtier quite quickly.

The change in his water happened after several hundred acres of vines were planted near his property. Hart said he has concerns about his well, and he knows many people in the area blame wineries and growers for the water problem. The issue has even divided the wine community to some degree; owners of some smaller vineyards see the sprawling plantings by large companies—often from outside the region—as to blame. “I definitely think there’s some anger,” Hart said.

The grower said he sees both sides: growers who chose to irrigate to ensure a return on their vineyard investment and homeowners worried about losing their water. “At some point everybody has to realize there just isn’t going to be enough water,” he sad.

‘We wouldn’t have bought here’
For many people in Paso Robles, however, the water has already run out. Sue Luft lives east of Templeton and is president of a citizens’ advocacy group in the groundwater debate.

Luft and her husband moved to the area from Bakersfield, Calif., after buying a home and 4 acres of Zinfandel vines. Luft, who has a background in environmental engineering and helped manage a small, mutually owned water district in Kern County, performed a thorough analysis of the property before buying it.

She said she knew water was becoming scarcer, but thought her well would be sufficient. The first major report on the groundwater basin was released in 2005, and Luft said she realized the problem was worse than anyone had realized. “We bought it thinking we were fine, and frankly we wouldn’t have bought here otherwise,” she said.

Six years later, the county declared the demand on the basin had reached a critical point, and in 2012 it passed an ordinance to reduce development demand on the basin. The most recent ordinance is intended to limit new water use by agriculture.

A blue-ribbon committee, formed by the county Board of Supervisors, also is evaluating possible solutions to recommend to the board.

Since 1997, groundwater levels across much of the basin have dropped by as much as 70 feet. Luft said she checks her well regularly and has recorded dropping levels even in wet years. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that 2013 has been a particularly dry year in the Central Coast.

Luft and several other residents who lost their wells, have had to dig deeper or are concerned about the availability of water in the future, formed the group PRO Water Equity, or Paso Robles groundwater basin Overliers for Water Equity. 

Several of Luft’s neighbors have had wells run dry, forcing many of them to get water delivered by a truck. People have lost equity in their homes and can’t afford to drill deeper wells, while others have gone deeper only to have those wells also go dry. “That happens to them, and there’s a mass planting next door, and it’s really hard for them to control their frustration,” Luft said.

Several growers also are worried they’ll lose their irrigation water and their livelihood, she said. “It’s kind of a race to the bottom; you can’t keep drilling deeper.”

Different plans for a solution
Solutions for the basin all require relatively complex steps because the state of California has relatively few regulations on how landowners can use groundwater. Luft said she would first like to see the emergency ordinance extended for two years. The county Board of Supervisors is expected to review the ordinance Oct. 1.

The solution advocated by her group would establish a “dependent district” under the county’s Flood Control District, which is overseen by the Board of Supervisors. The board could the assign county staff to draft a plan for basin management. Luft said residents would also have to vote to form an assessment district and then get the state legislature to empower the district to require well monitoring, manage groundwater allocations and implement recharge programs. “To get the authority you need, there’s no off-the-shelf district you can use to manage groundwater,” she said.

Water allocations would be granted on a per-acre or per-parcel basis. “What we would like to see—and have been advocating for since day one—is allocations,” she said. “It doesn’t reward people who overuse water.”

An alternative solution is touted by a group calling itself Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS), which is headed by a board comprised of leading names from the local agricultural community. The group’s chair and spokesman is Jerry Reaugh, who owns a 70-acre vineyard east of Paso Robles.

The group advocates for forming a California Water District that would be funded by landowners within the district. According to the group’s position paper, the district would import additional water to meet demand and encourage its members to conserve groundwater. A possible supply source is Lake Nacimiento, a reservoir in northern San Luis Obispo County. A pipeline to provide 17,500 acre-feet of water to the city of Paso Robles was completed in 2011.

The group maintains it has the financial and technical resources to provide the quickest, most efficient tool to provide governance and groundwater management to protect the district.

Voting would be equitable based on size of property, and assessments would be based on property size too, Reaugh said, adding that rural residents would get the benefits of the district without shouldering most of the costs.”

Critics contend the district’s voting structure, which skews votes to reflect the size of the assessment—or essentially more votes for landowners with more land—is unfair.

PRAGGS counters that it’s the only voting system allowed under state law for special assessment districts, and because the largest district members need irrigation water, they would ensure its use is managed in a sustainable and fair manner.

The district would have the clear legal authority to address the basin situation quickly and efficiently, Reaugh said. He added that it’s not just about getting water supply but the clear authority to address the groundwater issue. 

If the debate proves too divisive for residents in the area, it may ultimately require a judge to request the State Water Board to step in and draft a plan to divvy up the groundwater supply.

More information about the groundwater issue and steps taken by officials in San Luis Obispo County can be found here.

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