Los Robles Wineries Proliferate while Groundwater Sources Evaporate

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Turning water into wine isn’t as popular now as it was in biblical days. At least in Paso Robles.

Wells counted on by dozens of homeowners in the San Luis Obispo County wine country have run dry as the huge 790-square-mile aquifer that supplies them begins to feel the strain of agricultural expansion in the area. Acreage used to grow grapes for the burgeoning wine industry has tripled in the past 15 years, while aquifer levels have dropped 80-100 feet in some areas.

Two weeks ago, county supervisors voted (pdf) to cap the level of pumping from the aquifer while wine growers and residents try to resolve an escalating dispute over how to solve the water shortage. The cap will be accomplished by a freeze on permits that would, in just about any way, increase the need for more groundwater.

Wine growers favor a proposal to bring in more water from outside sources like the California State Water Project and Lake Nacimiento. Non-wine growers would prefer limits on how much water is taken from the ground. Building pipelines, they argue, would take too long and cost too much. There is also a suspicion that such proposals are only delaying tactics by grape growers who don’t really have a solution but don’t want to stop pumping out water. They are wary of a water district board that many contend is biased toward grower interests.

That bias, if it exists, might be related to the estimated $200 million the wine industry brought into the local economy in 2012. Wine grapes have been grown in the region since the 1920s, but the practice didn’t take off until 60 years later. It wasn’t until 2000 that an explosion of boutique and small family-owned wineries tripled their numbers from 50 to 180 that the region’s water resources began to feel the strain.

Today, more than 26,000 acres are used to grow grapes for wine. It is estimated that more than two-thirds of basin water usage is for farming, and most of that is for vineyards.  California and Texas have the most lax laws in the nation concerning groundwater, allowing virtually unlimited access. The county board of supervisor pointed out in the emergency ordinance passed August 27 that 4,000 acres of new vineyards had been planted in the past two years.

Wine is big business in California, and Paso Robles wineries have been rising stars in the industry. Although grapes don’t use a lot of water compared to other crops, access to those wineries has made them a popular choice, even among growers who only grow. The perception is that those in the wine industry have deep enough pockets to pay extra for water, while other farmers and residents will be forced out of the area by high prices.

Wells that used to tap water at 300 to 350 feet below the ground, typically have to go down 700 feet to be successful. The cost of sinking a new well is typically $25,000, Kurt Bollinger, manager of Miller Drilling Co. of Paso Robles, told the San Luis Obispo Tribune.

The issue isn’t in court yet, but might be headed there soon if the impasse isn’t broken.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Deep Trouble in the North County (by David Sneed, San Luis Obispo Tribune)

In Paso Robles, Vineyards’ Thirst Pits Growers against Residents (by David Pierson, Los Angeles Times)

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