Editor's note: This is the second installment in a five-part series. Coming Tuesday: At the center of the debate is the wine industry, which is both a major water user and an essential driver of the county’s No. 1 industry: tourism.
On the surface, the rural parts of San Luis Obispo County north of the Cuesta Grade are a picture of pastoral idyll.
Rolling hills are dotted with country homes — some modest, some palatial — many with horses and other livestock grazing peacefully nearby. Much of the area is also covered with thousands of acres of vineyards.
Residents bought or built their homes there to enjoy the simple country life. But their dream of raising a family and maybe a few animals is in peril.
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They are at ground zero of the Paso Robles groundwater basin crisis.
The levels of wells that supply water to their homes have dropped precipitously in the past decade. Many are worried about their wells going dry and losing their homes.
Dianne Jackson lives on two and a quarter acres near Geneseo and Union roads with her two dogs.
Her property is surrounded by vineyards. The steady drone of the vineyards’ powerful groundwater pumps frequently echo through the neighborhood.
She bought her home in 2000 and watched as the water level in her well dropped 75 feet. A year and a half ago, her well went dry and she had to pay $28,000 to have a deeper one drilled.
Her well was at 350 feet when it went dry. Her new well is at 850 feet with the water quality excellent.
“I hope it will last me until I’m dead,” she said.
“At the rate they are sucking it out, I don’t think so.”
She describes the water situation in the North County as a time bomb waiting to go off and is blunt in ascribing blame for her well going dry.
“I do really like to point a long finger at the wineries in particular,” she said. “They are taking our water and making money on it.”
“I love wine but I don’t wash my clothes in it or take a shower in it,” she added.
Jackson’s home is full of water-saving devices, and she grows only cactuses in her garden. She would like to see real restrictions put on the wine industry that would force it to conserve water as conscientiously as she does, such as a planting moratorium or requirements to grow their grapes without irrigation.
“If San Luis Obispo County can dictate how many horses I have on my property and if the county can say they can’t use plastic bags at the grocery store, the county needs to tell the wineries that they can’t take any more water out of the ground,” she said.
The Jardine Road area just east of Paso Robles is a semirural neighborhood of modest single-story homes on 1- or 2-acre lots.
Joy Sprague has lived on a 2-acre parcel off Jardine Road with her husband, Glenn, and two daughters for the past 26 years. Few areas have been harder hit by the groundwater crisis.
“Everyone around us has had to drill a deeper well,” she said.
Like many residents of the area, she feels angry, frightened and betrayed. She has seen the water level in her well fluctuate over the years depending on rainfall. Her pump is in only 50 feet of water and she is concerned that she, too, will need a new well considering the rates of groundwater decline the area is experiencing — nearly 100 feet in the past 30 years.
The county has classified the groundwater basin as in a Severity Level III, which is the most severe level, meaning that water is being pumped out of the aquifer at unsustainable rates. Sprague is baffled by the fact that county and local officials are unwilling to put any kind of restriction on pumping.
“There’s a reason to have these severity levels,” she said. “It’s to say ‘no.’ ”
She is angry at the vineyards that suck the bulk of the water out of the aquifer. She also resents the city of Paso Robles, which she thinks has allowed too much development, including four sprawling golf courses that also use a lot of water.
“I think they should think about the people who are already here and be smart about it,” she said. “I can see that cities need to grow, but they can’t approve everything that comes along.”
In the El Pomar region east of Templeton, the rolling hills are covered with vineyards, but the homes that dot the countryside are bigger and more expensive than the homes east of Paso Robles.
Here, too, homeowners are alarmed by the reductions in the water table they have seen over the past decade.
“We lost 15 feet last year,” said Sue Luft, who grows 4 acres of zinfandel grapes with her husband, Karl, on their property off Almond Drive. She serves on many water oversight bodies. “At this rate, I figure we have five years or less before our well goes dry.”
The Lufts still have 150 feet of water above their well. They are expecting even greater losses this year because of the dry winter this year.
Well owners in this area of the groundwater basin face a problem that others do not, she said. Geothermal activity injects dissolved minerals into the groundwater that causes the quality of well water to go down as the water level falls, adding another layer of urgency to the situation.
All of this has Luft and her neighbors frustrated that so little has been done to address the problem. Their biggest fear is that people will begin to lose their homes because of dry wells.
“The county does not need a bunch of shuttered homes,” said Nat Sherrill, a neighbor of Luft who has seen two of the four wells on his 80-acre property go dry because of a loss of 50 feet of groundwater in the past 10 years. He is getting by on one well but is getting ready to activate the other.
Another possibility is that people’s homes will become little more than seasonal cabins with people using them only during the winter and springtime when rain temporarily recharges wells.
In December, Cam Berlogar of Creston did something he’s never done before. In fact, he did it five times.
He got into his truck mounted with a 3,200-gallon water tank and delivered emergency water to five households whose wells had either gone dry or were producing too little water to support domestic needs.
Before then, water deliveries were only needed during the dry summer months. Wells going dry in December is the result of dramatic drops in groundwater levels coupled with an unusually dry winter.
Delivering water is one of several contracting businesses Berlogar has. As a member of the Creston Advisory Body, he is very familiar with the area and doesn’t see water conditions getting any better any time soon.
“It’s going to get ugly around here in the next couple of decades,” he said. “The majority of our water is being turned purple and shipped out of the county.”
Berlogar has as many as 20 water customers in the North County with six calling on him regularly. Most of his customers have slow or dry wells. Most of these people can’t afford a new, deeper well or have been told there is no water to be had deeper.
The water Berlogar delivers is not certified as potable, so it is up to each individual customer to decide how to use it. Many drink it. Others drink only bottled beverages and use his water for laundry, washing dishes and other nonconsumptive uses.
He is pessimistic about the future of the groundwater basin and thinks lawsuits are inevitable. He believes pump taxes or other techniques for limiting pumping from the aquifer are likely.
“I agree you should be able to do what you want with your land, but there should be some law that incorporates some fairness,” he said. “There’s nothing Joe Homeowner can do to fix this problem, so the county is going to have to man up and make enemies.”