County code enforcement officials are investigating 12 possible violations of a new emergency ordinance prohibiting the planting of any new vineyards that would increase water demand in the declining Paso Robles groundwater basin.
The Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance Aug. 27 prohibiting the planting of new irrigated crops or new construction in the basin unless the water it will use is offset so that there is no net increase in the amount of water pumped from the basin.
The Monday after the ordinance went into effect for 45 days, the county code enforcement department received a flurry of complaints from rural residents in the basin about night and evening activity in vineyards that may be a violation of the ordinance, said Art Trinidade, supervising resource protection officer.
It is a little alarming for people who live in the area to see all this going on, supposedly under the radar, he said.
The complaints resulted in 12 ongoing investigations. An investigation can include site visits and asking vintners to document the reasons for activities in their fields.
We just started evaluating these, Trinidade said. We are in the very preliminary stages.
The new ordinance said that if vines were not in the ground on Aug. 27 they could not be planted. However, this does not stop vintners from doing other work in the field such as ripping the ground in preparation for planting or installing irrigation systems.
Also, a vintner who planted grapes after Aug. 27 could argue a vested right to do so. A vested right is a contractual agreement that could cause an economic hardship for a business if it is not fulfilled.
For example, a vintner could argue that at the time of the ordinances enactment contracts to provide grapes to a winery had already been signed and new vines for planting had been purchased.
Grapes in the ground are not the only thing that could cause vesting, Trinidade said.
However, Trinidade warned that the window of opportunity to claim a vested right is rapidly closing. The emergency ordinance is nearly a month old and anyone claiming a vested right should have already done so.
If someone is found to be in violation of the emergency ordinance, the county would likely order that the illegally planted vineyards be removed.
On Oct. 1, the Board of Supervisors will hold another hearing on the crisis in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The hearing includes a resolution that could provide more guidance on vested rights as well as a possible vote to extend the emergency ordinance for up to two years.
A look at the basin
These maps provided by the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Works show how aquifer levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin have dropped. The first map shows the change in groundwater elevation from 1997 to 2013; the second shows the change from 1997 to 2009.