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Wine and Water series strikes a chord

sduerr@thetribunenews.comJuly 5, 2013 

Dryland farming and ranching have given way to vineyards like this area off Linne Road just outside Paso Robles.

DAVID MIDDLECAMP — dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

“Thank you so much for delving in and bringing this issue (the Paso Robles groundwater basin) to the public. It’s opening a lot of eyes to what we have been experiencing for the past several years. It’s really got people talking, and I think/hope will result in some attitude adjustments.’’ — Elaine Hagen, Paso Robles

That was one of the approximately 350 reactions to our recent five-part investigative series on wine and water.

As The Tribune coverage clearly showed, levels in the basin — the North County’s main water source — have dropped precipitously in the past 30 years. And 67 percent of the water being pumped out is used by agriculture, with vineyards getting the largest chunk.

The declines pose a profound threat not only for North County residents who could lose their homes because their wells are going dry but also for vineyards, which could lose access to a crucial resource. And that in turn could hurt the county’s top economic driver — the tourism industry, which counts on wineries to help woo visitors, fill hotels, eat out and shop.

We capped the series with a front-page opinion from The Tribune Editorial Board urging the San Luis Obispo County Board to take several steps — from conservation mandates to formation of a water district with regulatory teeth — to ensure that thirsty vineyards don’t threaten the North County’s main water supply.

Our news staff initially began researching this critical issue in the spring of 2012 by inviting a diverse group of experts to a roundtable discussion . Reporters Julie Lynem and David Sneed began reporting the issue in earnest in January, ultimately interviewing more than 75 people in total. Reporter Tonya Strickland joined them later to focus specifically on how the cities of Paso Robles and Atascadero were affected by — and addressing — the problem.

In Sneed’s words, “The wine and water series was the most complex and ultimately gratifying large project I’ve undertaken in more than 25 years as a journalist. Environmental stories are often complex and technical, but the complexity of the state’s water rights law put this one in a league by itself.”

For Strickland, the hours she spent “scouring the faded pages of our news archives proved priceless in weaving together a narrative that effectively linked past decisions to the realities of today.”

Lynem was struck by “how little insight county and city leaders of old — and to a certain extent, now — have had about the impact a dwindling groundwater basin would have on the future of our community, and why nothing had been done years ago to address it.” As well, she was surprised to learn that there had been no recent studies assessing the local wine industry’s economic impact. Our news staff undertook the series, including offering solutions suggested by water experts, to shed light on the unprecedented crisis in hopes that it will help residents — and leaders — develop informed solutions. We’ll continue our focus on this critical issue in the months ahead, striving to hold leaders and stakeholders accountable.

Just last week, for example, Lynem reported that demand for high-quality California grapes has prompted Justin Vineyards & Winery, Sextant Wines and brothers Georges and Daniel Daou to plant new vines. Their plantings represent just 650 of an estimated 3,000 to 8,000 acres of new vines expected in the North County in the near future, according to local wine industry experts.

Based on reader reaction, our coverage is striking a chord. Since the series was published, we’ve received hundreds of comments, overwhelmingly positive. We’ve printed 16 Letters to the Editor and two Viewpoints, and have four letters awaiting publication. In addition, the series has generated about 30 emails to staff and about 300 comments online at http://www.sanluisobispo.com.

We welcome further comment; send your reaction to letters@thetribunenews.com or Letters to the Editor, The Tribune, P.O. Box 112, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406-0112. In the meantime, here are comments we’ve received:

“It takes awareness, effort, research, historical perspective and community interest to cover a topic as central to an area’s future as its water supply. It takes reporters, writers, photographers, illustrators and editors to present what they found in a logical, objective and correlative story.

It takes a newspaper to do it. There is no one else that can. Thank you.” — Marvin Sosna, Morro Bay

• • •

“The Tribune staff and the editorial staff have produced a marvelously accurate picture of what is happening in SLO County. I cannot praise this well-researched series enough. I sincerely hope you are awarded the honors you deserve for this research and writing. In the meantime, I hope our county listens, works on a solution, and saves our water.” — Shirley Montague-Devine, Los Osos

• • •

“Congratulations to your team for the amazing series of articles about water and wine. Remarkable and incredibly important. …” — Michael E. Manchak, president/CEO, Economic Vitality Corp.

• • •

“I want to extend my congratulations to you for your exceptional five-part series on water! I enjoyed all of them. I particularly loved Julie’s (Lynem) piece on the wine/tourism/unregulated groundwater pumping absurdity. From afar, it looks like what is going on is the classic tragedy-of-the-commons problem: limitless (unregulated) access to a finite common pool resource. I’ve written about this in Unquenchable and Water Follies. We in Arizona sort of dealt with this by curbing the drilling of new wells in already stressed regions. …

I found myself chortling about the theme in your series about the unwillingness of the powers-that-be to consider any real solution. Instead, they seem to think that there must be some sort of oasis out there to tap into. Let’s augment the supply! Yes, and there really is a tooth fairy. You folks epitomize what is great about the Fourth Estate. My hat is off to you.” — Robert Glennon, Regents’ Professor and Morris K. Udall Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Arizona

Sandra Duerr is the executive editor of The Tribune. As always, we are interested in hearing your suggestions for further coverage of this issue — or others. Please write me c/o The Tribune, P.O. Box 112, San Luis Obispo, CA 93406-0112, or email me at sduerr@thetribunenews.com.

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