County OKs 21 exemptions to ban on new plantings in Paso groundwater basin

jlynem@thetribunenews.comMarch 14, 2014 

File photo of a mechanical harvester grabbing ripe petite syrah grapes off the vine at a vineyard in Paso Robles.


Twenty-one North County landowners have been granted an exemption to the county’s emergency ordinance prohibiting the planting of new irrigated crops in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Theirs are among 34 requests for exemptions to the ordinance, which is designed to limit demand on the groundwater basin. In recent years the aquifer has fallen precipitously in some areas, causing some wells to go dry and many rural residents to drill deeper, costlier wells.

There are two ways to get an exemption:

  • Landowners can be granted vested rights if they prove they had already made a significant investment in planting a new crop before the two-year ordinance took effect last August. The county has received 27 requests for this exemption.
  • Landowners can get an offset exemption to remove certain irrigated crops and replace them with new irrigated crops that use the same amount of water or less. The county has received seven offset exemption requests.
Vested rights process

Seventeen landowners, who have been granted exemptions through the vested rights process, are limited to the acreage for which they have been granted the vested right.

For instance, the site might be 1,000 acres, but the vesting exemption may only be granted for 300 acres, said Kami Griffin, assistant county planning director.

“They could not plant the other 700 acres,” she said.

The remaining 10 requests for vested rights exemptions are still under review, Griffin said. “We’ve either requested additional information and are still waiting, or we haven’t had time to look at (them) yet.”

Combined, the 27 requests total about 1,967 acres, she said, adding that those approved total just over 1,500 acres. Most applications were submitted between Aug. 27, 2013, when the ordinance took effect, and Dec. 31, 2013.

Offset process

At the same time, seven North County growers have applied to remove certain irrigated crops through the offset exemption. The emergency ordinance prohibits new planting or development within the basin unless water use can be offset on a 1-to-1 ratio.

So far, the county has granted four of the seven requests. The requests have ranged from landowners agreeing to take out irrigated pasture to replace with vineyards to a grower replacing an olive orchard with a vineyard.

“It’s pretty much the two types of things we’ve seen,” Griffin said.

Dana Merrill, owner of Pomar Junction Winery and Mesa Vineyard Management in Templeton, was issued an offset clearance because he had about 18 to 20 acres of irrigated pasture on his El Pomar Ranch in Templeton that he agreed to get rid of in exchange for planting about 55 acres of grapes at some point in the future.

“When I bought the ranch, that’s one reason I paid what I did for it,” said Merrill, also a member of the Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater Solutions, a group consisting of vineyard owners, managers and cattle ranchers.

“It’s plantable land, and I would like to be able to have it as an option,” he said.

Griffin said it’s surprising that some requests are still coming in.

“We thought we wouldn’t get any more requests, and that they would stop after January,” she said. “The numbers have gone way down, but they have still been trickling in."



As of Friday, more than 30 applicants have requested approval for new water uses in the Paso Robles groundwater basin, either by vested right or by water conservation offsets.

Offset requests:

Rocky Canyon

Windfall Farms

Bordonaro Trust

X-Line Farms


*two unknown

Vested right requests:

Roll Vineyard / Fiji Water

Estrella River


Vino Farms



San Antonio Winery (2)

Parrish Family

Creston Valley

Four Paws







Gentle Hills

Bonel Ranch




Lohr (2)

Diamond West

Diamond West/Sran


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