Efforts by the county to stabilize the Paso Robles groundwater basin are in limbo after the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday failed to muster enough votes to continue an emergency moratorium on new vineyard plantings.
With Supervisor Debbie Arnold voting no, the board failed to extend an ordinance that prevents new irrigated plantings in the basin unless their water use is offset by conservation elsewhere. A unanimous vote was needed by the four members of the board to extend the ordinance past its initial 45-day period to two years.
The board continued the hearing to next Tuesday and scheduled a second special meeting for Oct. 11 — the day the emergency ordinance expires — in an attempt to give themselves two more chances to reach an agreement.
The main obstacle to the board reaching an agreement was the criteria the county would use to decide which vineyards could claim an exemption to the moratorium based on economic hardship.
Arnold and many in the wine industry argued that the definition of these so-called vested rights were too restrictive. They argued for a looser definition that would allow more exceptions, which they say would protect the economic vitality of the North County’s wine industry.
“It’s about working families,” Arnold said. “Tens of millions of dollars in economic investment could go away.”
The other three supervisors pleaded with Arnold to change her mind, saying that the entire cooperative effort to find a permanent solution to the crisis facing the groundwater basin could fail and descend into litigation if the emergency moratorium is allowed to expire.
The emergency ordinance is intended to be a time-out on further plantings in order to give the county time to find a permanent solution to plunging aquifer levels in the basin. Forming a water management district is widely considered the best option but that could take years to set up.
“Everyone I talk to says that we have a problem in the basin,” said Supervisor Frank Mecham. “If we don’t continue with this the whole thing will come unraveled.”
All of the supervisors agreed that the issue of vested rights needs more work. They directed staff to schedule a hearing in mid-November to further refine the criteria for vested rights after working with wine industry leaders to address their concerns.
However, if the emergency ordinance expires on Oct. 11, those efforts will be moot.
When the supervisors passed the original emergency ordinance Aug. 27, it contained a less restrictive definition of vested rights that Arnold and the vintners preferred. That definition said that a grower had to prove a “significant” investment in buying new plants and doing other work to get ready to plant vines was made before Aug. 27 in order to get an exemption.
Under that definition, five vintners applied for exemptions on plantings ranging from four acres to 450 acres, totaling more than 1,000 acres of new plantings. Since an acre of vines typically uses an acre-foot of water in a year, those new plantings would constitute an additional 1,000 acre-feet of water demand on the basin, said Kami Griffin, acting county planning director.
County planning staff and three of the supervisors agreed that that definition was too loose and supported new, more specific requirements that a grower would need to have installed half of a new planting’s irrigation system and be contractually obligated to buy all its new vines in order to qualify for an exemption.
Supervisor Bruce Gibson said the new vested rights definition was a “reasonable middle ground.”