Wine and water: Deep aquifer trouble in California's North County

San Luis Obispo TribuneJune 19, 2013 

Deep beneath the peaceful countryside, the North County’s primary water source is facing an unprecedented crisis.

Over the past 30 years, levels in the underground aquifer have dropped precipitously, 80 to 100 feet or more in some areas.

These declines pose a profound threat for the region, residents and economy. Rural homeowners are facing the prospect of losing their homes because their wells are going dry. Vineyards could lose access to a crucial resource.

And the crisis in the groundwater basin is only expected to get worse — much worse. Rainfall this winter was only about 40 percent of normal, leaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.

“Lowering pumps, digging new wells and trucking in water to meet the needs of our families — this is the reality people are already facing in our area,” said Lindsay Pera, a homeowner in the El Pomar area east of Templeton. “We are not ahead of this problem. We are smack dab in the middle of it.”

Hardest hit is a 5-mile-wide by 10-mile-long swath of land east of Paso Robles. Like many families in this area, the Peras have already had to lower the pump in their well twice to keep up with the declines.

The communities of Paso Robles, Atascadero and Templeton face spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sources such as the Nacimiento pipeline. Most troubling of all is that the crisis is pitting North County residents against vintners, an industry that pumped nearly $200 million into the county’s economy in 2012, making it a leading economic driver.

Hidden reservoir Most of San Luis Obispo County north of the Cuesta Grade sits atop the Paso Robles groundwater basin, one of the largest underground reservoirs in the state of California.

It contains an estimated 30 million acre-feet of water. That’s enough to supply twice as many households for a year as there are in California.

Sixty-seven percent of the water pumped out of the basin is used by agriculture, with the largest chunk going to vineyards, according to the latest studies in 2006. Trailing far behind agriculture are municipal water users, accounting for 18 percent of the water use in the basin, and rural domestic users, estimated to account for 13 percent.

However, it is impossible to know how much water is being pumped out of the basin and by whom. Well owners are not required to meter their wells or report usage, and vineyard owners are not required to get discretionary permits to plant more acres of grapes.

Few people know as much about the groundwater basin as Sue Luft, a neighbor of Pera’s. She sits on the county’s Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Blue Ribbon Steering Committee, a group tasked by the county to find solutions to the groundwater crisis.

She also serves as an environmental representative and vice chairwoman of the San Luis Obispo County Water Resources Advisory Committee and on the board of the Central Coast Vineyard Team. The top 20 wineries in the North County are estimated to take 40 percent of the groundwater, Luft said.

“The biggest users of water are the vineyards — that’s just a fact,” she said. “Within 10 to 15 years, we are going to start losing homes and vineyards.”

For their part, many in the wine industry have only partially recognized their role in a dwindling Paso Robles groundwater basin. While they acknowledge that wine grapes have come to dominate North County’s agricultural landscape, bringing with them great economic benefit to the region, many believe that grape growers have been unfairly targeted.

Grapes, they contend, require less water than other crops such as alfalfa, and commercial and residential development are equally to blame for groundwater woes. Moreover, they say their industry has been in the forefront of water conservation and that more needs to be done to determine how much water is being used and for what purposes.

“We have had a lot of discussions, and there is recognition that there will probably be multiple solutions to address the problem … from every stakeholder,” said Dana Merrill, a member of the blue ribbon steering committee and owner of Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery.

“We are in a dynamic area where cities are growing, the wine industry is doing well and more plantings are going in. I will say that we all need to recognize that everybody uses water.”

Threat to homeowners The biggest danger of dropping groundwater levels for the homeowner is the need to drill a new, deeper well. A new well typically costs $25,000, said Kurt Bollinger, manager of Miller Drilling Co. of Paso Robles.

Historically, the water table in the basin was 300 to 350 feet deep. Now, a replacement well is typically 700 feet deep. Many homeowners have to take out a second mortgage on their homes to afford the new well.

“It all boils down to economics,” Bollinger said. “We all realize the basin is in overdraft, and the vineyards could not have picked a worse time to plant new acreage.”

Those who cannot afford a new well face an even grimmer reality. Some are forced to have water trucked to their homes. Others can only live in their homes during wet months when wells tend to recharge. Still others face the loss of their homes.

“If you don’t have a lot of equity in your home, you’re sunk,” Luft said.

A profitable winery is in a better position to afford to deepen its wells than a rural homeowner on a fixed income. But wineries will eventually reach a point where their wells are so deep the expense of pumping the water will eliminate their profit margins, Bollinger said.

“Can you grow a product and make money if your pump is at 800 feet?” he asked. “Pumping costs are going to quadruple. It’s all a matter of horsepower.”

What can be done? In an effort to deal with this looming crisis and avoid lawsuits, the county has formed the steering committee that includes Luft, Merrill and 15 other stakeholders. The committee is examining a wide range of solutions, most of which center on voluntary conservation and developing new water sources.

“I think the one thing we’ve heard is that there is no silver bullet here,” said Larry Werner, chairman of the steering committee. “It’s going to take a lot of little steps to get us to the finish line.”

County Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district is hardest hit by the groundwater crisis, agrees that there will be no quick fix. He said he thinks any solution will require three key components: the political will to make hard decisions, cooperation among the stakeholders, and the money to pay for expensive new water sources and infrastructure.

“I just hope that we are not in the situation where the guy with the most money wins,” he said. “That would be a very sad situation. Everyone needs to be considered in this whole scheme of things.”

Others, such as PRO Water Equity, a group of rural homeowners, think the county is not going far enough. They say the county needs to form a water district or other agency that can implement pump taxes and other techniques that will penalize overpumping and create conservation incentives.

“Some people will do things voluntarily, but most people won’t,” Luft said. “The only way to manage the basin is to meter every well and appoint someone to manage use.”

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