Digging Into Groundwater in Paso Vineyards

Pumping moratorium hearing delayed; wine industry divided

by Jane Firstenfeld
In August 2013 the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors enacted a moratorium on new water use. Photo: Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery
Paso Robles, Calif.—While the entire state deals with drought, vineyards and other agriculture businesses in San Luis Obispo (SLO) County face a steeper uphill battle over groundwater in the ebbing Paso Robles basin.

Wine industry stakeholders are divided and seeking legal remedies ranging from an injunction against a county moratorium on new water use to a bill that would create a California Water District.

In 2013 wine grapes were the county’s highest value agricultural crop, bringing in more than $220 million, according to the SLO County crop report released April 2.

Existing well ownerss can pump as much as they can and want, although in summer 2013 property owners in the Paso Robles basin found wells going dry, forcing them to truck-in water or attempt to drill deeper wells to tap groundwater—creating a waiting list for drillers and driving costs to around $30,000 per well.

According to SLO deputy county counsel Whitney McDonald, “The basin was showing signs of decline. In addition, the drought created a dire health and safety crisis.” Surprisingly—and in contrast to other California winegrowing regions—the county does not regulate ag practices, McDonald said. “There are no land-use restrictions at all.” 

In an August 2013 response to the crisis, the Board of Supervisors enacted a moratorium designed to stop the decline by barring new or increased agricultural water use. It was the best they could do to maintain the status quo, McDonald said.

The moratorium essentially stopped the planting of any new crops—including grapevines—unless the landowners could prove they were offsetting historical water use on a 1-to-1 basis.  A farmer might be allowed to replace thirsty alfalfa fields, which require four times as much water as grapevines. A buyer of raw vineyard acreage, however, would not have the same indulgence. The moratorium would remain in force until August 2015.

Local reaction
Some people had a problem with this. Cynthia Steinbeck, who owns 1,000-case Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery in Paso Robles and farms 335 vineyard acres, was among a group of seven landowners who in November 2013 founded Paso Robles Water Integrity (PR-WIN). 

The organization filed a “Quiet Title” lawsuit seeking clear title to their rights for reasonable and beneficial use of groundwater. This will eventually be heard in Santa Clara County.

Since then, the group has grown to 35 property owners farming 6,000 acres, and it has requested an injunction seeking immediate relief from the moratorium. The original suit was scheduled to be heard today (April 15). That hearing was postponed when the judge recused himself due to a conflict of interest as the former county counsel, said one of PR-Win’s attorneys, Sophia Treder. Another judge is now scheduled to hear the suit June 4.

The complaint, Steinbeck said, “Challenges the constitutionality and legality of the moratorium. Never has a county Board of Supervisors made a sweeping land-use or water policy. The law is quite simple: Landowners over basins have a right to reasonable and beneficial use of groundwater.”

In the event of a shortage, she said, “Purveyors must conserve or find alternative sources. This ordinance flipped that upside down. There can be no new pumping or no new homes outside the (Paso) city limits. They can pump what they are pumping. It does not affect landowners with existing uses; it only affects new uses, and Paso Robles city residents have access to city water.

“In SLO County, agriculture is considered the ‘highest use’ of water. The greatest cone of depression (in the water table) is in the city of Paso Robles,” according to a single map released by the supervisors, Steinbeck said.

The moratorium, she said, affects land values in the region. “If you haven’t the right to use water, the land is worth nothing.…We are asking the judge to give us the highest, most beneficial right.”

As it stands, few if any vines will be planted in Paso this year. A local real estate agent who specializes in ag land recently comment that the moratorium is hindering vineyard sales.

With no water district in place, Steinbeck said, “We’re protecting rights.…It’s like ‘Chinatown,’” Roman Polanski’s dark 1974 film that referenced Los Angeles’ secretive pillage of the Owens Valley water supply in the early 20th century.

Will the state step in?
Two other local groups, formerly at odds, joined to seek a state-sanctioned solution. The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions (PRAAGS) formed in 2013. Its board includes wine growers and other agriculture businesses. In December, it allied with PRO Water Equity, an all-volunteer coalition of Paso Robles Groundwater Basin users.

According to PRAAGS treasurer John Crossland, president of Vineyard Professional Services, which manages some 3,000 acres of Paso vineyards, the two groups came up with the idea of a modified California Water District, altering the “off the shelf model” to suit the concerns of the proposed district.  Three members will be elected on a one-person-one-vote basis by popular vote; two by landowners owning fewer than 40 acres; two by landowners owning between 40 and fewer than 400 acres, and two by those owning more than 400 acres. No single stakeholder group would have a controlling role.
According to PRAAGS documents, the city of Paso Robles is not in the water district. “The city has its own governance structure and uses groundwater as an appropriator.”

They have been working with their state assemblyman, Katcho Achadjian, to establish a modified California Water District to control the Paso Robles basin. The proposal was recently declared constitutional by California’s Office of Legislative Counsel, which suggested there might be more questions. The next step, Crossland said, would be getting legislation passed to establish the district.

SLO and Paso are “Probably one of the last major ag districts without water districts,” said winegrower Jerry Reaugh, PRAAGS chairman, who farms 80 acres at Sereno Vista Vineyards.

“There is a gaping hole. There is no representation for rural residents or agriculture. What we need is so big and glaring: We need a water district. It needs a hybrid board, in my opinion,” he said.

To create a district, Achadjian’s bill must be passed by the California state government, then win approval from the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO).
“The lawsuits are independent of what we’re trying to do,” Reaugh said. They can, he observed, take decades to resolve. Establishing a water district early next year is “optimistic but do-able,” he said. “The state has made it clear they won’t be shy about stepping into regulate water districts.”

All on the same page?
The lawsuits and the legislation do not cancel each other out, explained Dana Merrill, president of Mesa Vineyard Management Inc. and vice chairman of PRAAGS. Mesa owns 350 vineyard acres in SLO and manages a total of around 2,000.

Merrill explained that at least two wine industry entities are members of both PRAAGS and PR-WIN. Although the water-use moratorium will sundown in 2015, creating a water district will afford Paso ag with a permanent agency to address water issues.

With its proposed modification to the standard district, PRAAGS is attempting to mollify all stakeholders through broad acceptance.

“We need something,” he said. But nothing is certain. The June primary election could potentially alter the balance of the SLO Board of Supervisors. “Eventually, they will have to come up with something permanent. One thing they’ve gotten out of the existing ordinance is an idea of what concerns the voters. I’m hoping by the end of the summer, we can have a ballot election by the landowners.”

Currently no comments posted for this article.