A Paso Robles vineyard owner is seeking to use surface water from the Nacimiento Water Project to irrigate a portion of his crop, an experiment he thinks will ultimately conserve groundwater for county residents.
“Surface water is used for irrigation all over California,” said Jerry Lohr, president of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.
If approved by the San Luis Obispo Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Lohr would irrigate roughly 5 percent of his 3,000-acre vineyard off Airport Road with untreated water from the project.
Lohr has proposed buying 250 acre-feet of untreated Nacimiento water each year for five years, starting July 1.
Completed in 2011, the Nacimiento Water Project is a 45-mile pipeline that carries millions of gallons from Nacimiento Lake to residents and businesses within San Luis Obispo County.
Many North County vineyard owners rely solely on water pumped from the Paso Robles groundwater basin, which homeowners also use. In recent years, the aquifer has fallen dramatically in some areas, causing some wells to go dry and forcing many rural residents to drill deeper, costlier wells or truck in water. The situation has been aggravated by the drought.
If approved, Lohr’s experiment would ideally conserve groundwater supply.
“This is a real-life experiment, all at Jerry Lohr’s expense,” said Jim App, city manager for Paso Robles, who endorsed the experiment. “This is going to cost him a lot of money. It’s going to cost the taxpayers nothing.”
Exactly how much this will cost Lohr is unknown, although his proposal notes that the base price of the water is $106 per acre-foot, subject to change each year. He also would pay the cost to install a temporary 3-inch turnout to deliver water to his property, according to his proposal.
The experiment will provide hard data on whether Lohr’s switch from pumping groundwater to using the Nacimiento water for part of his vineyard will make more groundwater available to other basin users, App said.
For Lohr, part of the experiment also would be finding out whether the untreated water, which he will need to filter, will be suitable for his vines.
Lohr said he would need to filter the untreated water for matter such as algae. He has successfully used surface water for a vineyard he owns near Sacramento, he said, but there the water moves more — rather than sitting still in a reservoir — and, thus, is easier to filter.
He said his Paso Robles vineyard is only about 1,500 feet from where the pipeline crosses the Salinas River, making it easier to access. If he’s permitted to draw from the pipeline, he will then filter it and use drip irrigation on a portion of his grapes.
As a civil engineer and former NASA research scientist who has grown grapes for more than 40 years, Lohr said he is interested in finding new ways to optimize water use.
“We need to be able to work together during these periods of drought,” he said.
Even if the experiment doesn’t work, App said, it will provide a valuable research tool on whether the irrigation would work and its impact on water levels.
“We believe the outcome will be very positive,” he said. “But we want to observe it.”
If it works, it could provide a model for other vineyards, which currently use significant amounts of groundwater.
“Water is a resource we want to manage carefully so we don’t exhaust it,” App said. “This is a positive, constructive step.”
There is no timeline for how long the approval process might take. But, App said, he hopes approval will be quick.
“We’re anxious to get this in front of everyone,” he said.
J. Lohr already saves water by using pressure bombs to measure sap flow through the vines. This instrument indicates how much water the vines need and saves water during the growing season by using no more water than necessary to grow the vines.
The vineyard says it has a water conservation program and has strived to become more efficient with water since the early 2000s, cutting water use by about 60 percent.