Over the Hill

Paso Robles made history right before our eyes

Special to The TribuneJune 20, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

Sometimes we witness history being made and don’t realize it. I thought of that as I read The Tribune’s just-completed series on why the Paso Robles groundwater basin is shrinking. That’s history, and I witnessed some of it.

I witnessed it one day in August 1973 east of Paso Robles at Whitley Gardens. I was interviewing TV star Wayne Rogers who was then playing Trapper John on “M*A*S*H.” But his career wasn’t the history I witnessed. That history came when he described the vineyard he was planting on the Tierra Rejada ranch.

He said he was helping to supervise the planting of 520 acres of grapevines. He was a partner in the ranch along with general partner Herman Schwartz and three other actors: Peter Falk, Jack Webb and James Caan.

The ranch had previously been used to raise dry-land grain, irrigated alfalfa and horses. But on the day we talked, the ranch had overhead sprinklers and three irrigation reservoirs. Rogers predicted that by 1977 or ’78 the Paso Robles-Shandon area would have 1,500 to 2,000 more acres of producing grapevines and another winery or two.

His predictions were correct and then some. Today the North County has about 32,000 acres of wine-grape vines, according to The Tribune’s series on the Paso Robles groundwater basin, which also reported severe declines in the basin’s water levels.

I also witnessed history in 1962. Mamie and I and our children moved to Paso Robles where I opened an office for Beneficial Finance Co. I soon noticed a number of businesses barely hanging on by their fingernails. Many were victims of the two boom-and-bust cycles that hit when Camp Roberts closed after World War II and again after the Korean War. The surrounding agricultural economy had also declined.

Also that year I witnessed Barney Schwartz win his first City Council election. For the next 20 years he served as Paso Robles’ mayor and did everything he could to stir up the economy. Developers were welcome. Paso Robles completed 37 annexations totaling 5,022 acres. Its area more than tripled.

Schwartz was pushing growth well before the state published a report in 1979 on the Paso Robles groundwater basin. But the idea of a huge, natural, underground “reservoir” fit his growth policy. He talked about “mining” it, if necessary.

So today we witness ever increasing vineyards, ever increasing populations and ever decreasing groundwater. The city of Paso Robles’ decision to contract for 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water per year looks smarter every day.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach him at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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