Paso Robles groundwater basin needs lots of help

Special to The TribuneNovember 29, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

The Paso Robles groundwater basin is in more trouble. You’ve probably heard that we’ve been pumping water from that basin faster than nature replaces it. We’ve also been having a drought. And now the basin has attracted lawyers and lawsuits.

The story was in Wednesday’s Tribune. The headline said, “Two lawsuits filed to stop emergency water measure.” The lawsuits seek to prevent our county supervisors from regulating the pumping of water from the basin.

There’s no telling how those suits will end up. But I believe when such a vital community resource as the water basin is in danger, the supervisors must act. They should fight the lawsuits and continue to ban most new pumping from the water basin until they can pass the permanent regulations.

The Paso Robles groundwater basin lies under most of the North County, which has always been hot and dry. But in the early days, most crops here weren’t irrigated. Mission San Miguel raised lots of grain — but with no irrigation.

And in the early and middle 1900s, almond trees marched up and down North County hills, also without irrigation. Grapes were raised, but the vineyards were generally dry-farmed, as some in the North County still are.

But probably sometime in the 1960s, plastic irrigation piping and accessories appeared in this area. They made large-scale irrigated wine grape vineyards practical here and profitable. And about that same time, North County farmers and ranchers were facing tough competition from Midwestern growers. Little by little, irrigated vineyards have replaced much of the North County’s grain fields and cattle rangeland.

It seemed like a good deal. North County farmers could finally make a good, steady profit from their land. But now we seem to have too many irrigated vineyards for our water supply. Also, global warming may some day cause more, longer and drier droughts.

If we allow unlimited irrigation to lower groundwater levels, will the ground also sink and compact? Can it ever hold as much water again? Will the cost of drilling deeper wells force small landowners off their property?

The Anasazi Indians flourished between 700 and 1300 in the Four Corners area where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah now come together. They built many extensive pueblos of stone blocks and adobe, but they eventually abandoned them. Some still stand.

Experts aren’t sure why they left, but there was a drought in that area from 1276 to 1299. Let’s not become the modern Anasazi. Let’s regulate pumping to ensure a sufficient reserve water supply.

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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