As water pressure mounts, vineyard owners ponder response

New basin map and the prospect of emergency ordinances have vineyard owners calling for more study; meanwhile, some continue to plant new grapes

San Luis Obispo - The TribuneAugust 17, 2013 

With proposed emergency ordinances designed to prevent further stress on the Paso Robles groundwater basin and a new county map showing the decline is more pervasive than previously thought, some North County wine grape growers now wonder how they should respond. 

While some remain unconvinced that urgent county measures are the right solution and continue to plant vines, others believe that more analysis is needed and are considering pulling back.

Water levels in the basin have declined dramatically in the past four years, according to the map, which shows that most of the aquifer has suffered declines of 70 feet or more since 1997. 

A previous map, which used data from 1997 through 2009, showed that the most severe declines of 70 feet or more were concentrated in the cone of depression, a circular area east of Paso Robles.

Aside from the findings, the county is in the process of developing emergency measures that could temporarily prohibit new uses of the basin, a move that some vineyard owners and other agriculturalists have argued might harm their operations. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors will meet Aug. 27 to consider, among other actions, adopting emergency ordinances to limit groundwater pumping in the basin.

Jerry Reaugh, a grower and chairman of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, a group of agriculturalists and vineyard owners, called the new map “eye-opening” and said the expansion of the red zone “bolsters the fact that the basin has to be considered in its entirety, not just in individual sections.”

The map, he said, “confirms we have a serious problem in the basin, and it needs attention immediately.”

Even so, Reaugh said he’s not sure the emergency ordinances offer the best fix. The alliance, he said, has never denied the basin has a problem, but “it has been 60 years in the making, and to think it will be solved in five weeks with an ordinance is a far reach.” 

“There are things that need to be done,” he added. “But I can’t speak to those publicly yet.” 

Although he has not seen the recent map, winemaker Don Brady questioned the timing of its release, saying he is concerned that “we are once again in reactive mode fueled on 11th-hour info.”

Brady works for Robert Hall Winery east of Paso Robles. Robert Hall has planted new vines and replaced some dead and diseased vines this year, and it has no plans to plant additional vineyards, Brady said.

“As far as county ordinances are concerned, we hope that the measures adopted by the county are very thoughtful and considerate of all concerned, and that they get the desired result without unintended consequences,” he said.

The map left some owners with more questions than answers. 

“Further study is absolutely necessary with this new conflicting information,” said Cindy Steinbeck, whose family owns Steinbeck Vineyards & Winery, in the heart of the basin. 

The Steinbecks grow more than a dozen varietals on nearly 1,000 acres, which they sell to wineries such as Eberle, J Lohr and Justin.

Steinbeck said the family doesn’t have additional acres to plant, but the finger shouldn’t be pointed just at wineries. “Until the issue is addressed sufficiently, some action needs to be taken by all who use water — new home permits, resorts and hotels, golf courses as well as agriculture — to curb water usage,” she said.

Steinbeck has cautioned against the county drafting ordinances that she said could hurt growers and homeowners alike.

“It should not be put off indefinitely, but to take emergency measures without the facts in hand would be extremely detrimental, and not just to the agricultural community,” she said recently.

Niels Udsen, owner of Castoro Cellars, declined to comment on the new map because he had not seen it, nor did he feel comfortable discussing the proposed county ordinances until he reviews the final draft.

However, Udsen, who has about 350 acres on Paso Robles’ east side, said the basin’s burden is something business owners and residents all share, and he most likely will not plant any more vines.

“I had no plans to plant in either case,” he said. “But because of the water, it’s probably better that I not plant any more.”

Meanwhile, some vineyard owners are expanding.

Justin Vineyards & Winery, for example, recently planted 346 acres of cabernet sauvignon grapes east  of Highway 101 and is in the process of planting an additional 297 acres, confirmed Fred Holloway, director of production and winemaking. 

About half of Justin’s vineyards are not dependent on the basin, Holloway noted. Water to irrigate its westside vineyards comes from wells that do not draw on it. 

With its new eastside plantings, Holloway said Justin has been taking care to use modern techniques to conserve water.

Holloway is aware of the county’s new map but said it did not change his statement that “solutions need to include both conservation and additional water for the basin.”

Reaugh, chairman of the PRAAGS group, said no one has the right answer, although “it’s clear the resource is more finite than we thought it was,” he said.

It’s a complex problem, he said, and individual growers are going to have to make their own decisions and look at all of the options, including whether it makes sense for them to do more planting.

“I think that’s the issue some in the ag community are looking at,” Reaugh said. “How do you balance the needs and, really, the rights of people to continue their business activities on the one hand, and deal with a very finite resource on the other?” he said.

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