Much as we value what wineries have contributed to San Luis Obispo County — jobs, tax revenue, tourist dollars, cachet — thirsty vineyards cannot be allowed to threaten North County’s main water supply.
That unacceptable tradeoff already is happening to a degree. If nothing is done to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin, it will only get worse.
As explained in The Tribune’s recent five-part, investigative series, Wine and Water, the basin is in serious danger. Water levels are dropping and many property owners have been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to dig deeper wells.
At this juncture, pointing fingers at decision makers over what occurred in the past won’t help. We can’t turn back the clock and reduce the amount of commercial and residential growth that’s occurred in the city of Paso Robles, or the number of vineyards that have been planted in surrounding rural areas.
But we must not exacerbate the problem by allowing water consumption to continue unabated. Since vineyards use an estimated 67 percent of the water pumped from the basin, they must be key players in any plan to correct the situation.
So what can be done?
There is no single solution; what’s needed is a multi-pronged approach consisting of short- and long-term remedies.
Because most of the wineries are in the unincorporated areas of North County, we urge the Board of Supervisors to take the lead in the following actions:• An urgency ordinance. The Board of Supervisors must act as quickly as possible to stabilize the situation by addressing agricultural water consumption. Various temporary measures, such as prohibiting new agricultural ponds, requiring water off-sets for new irrigated crops or placing a moratorium on conversion of pasture land to irrigated crops are needed until a permanent solution is crafted.
• Conservation mandates. It’s not enough for some vineyard owners to voluntarily practice water conservation. It should be standard operating procedure for all wineries to use water-saving methods, which include planting vines with drought-tolerant rootstalks and using soil moisture sensors and other technology to use the least amount of water possible.
Many local jurisdictions require low-flow toilets and showerheads in homes and drought-resistant landscaping in yards. That same principle should apply to vineyards.• Acquiring supplemental water. State water and unallocated Nacimiento water are a couple of the alternatives under discussion. While we don’t believe any alternative water source is plentiful or dependable enough to solve the problem, it would take some pressure off the basin.
• Forming a water district. Again, discussions already are under way; the Board of Supervisors has directed county staff to do some preliminary research and report back later in the summer.
While it won’t be an easy task to set up a water district or agency, we believe this ultimately will be the best and most comprehensive solution. It’s worked well in several other California counties, including Orange County, where a water agency has operated since 1933.
A couple of caveats: A North County district must include all affected landowners, not just the largest property owners. And to be truly effective, we believe the district must monitor water use and enact preventive measures to avoid over-pumping the basin. That could mean metering water consumption, charging pump fees and limiting vineyard acreage — controversial proposals that already are fueling speculation of a lawsuit.
While no one wants to see adjudication of the basin, when public health and welfare are at stake, elected leaders have a clear duty to act. They cannot allow themselves to be bullied into taking weak measures or doing nothing at all.
We recognize that none of this will be easy.
San Luis Obispo County has rarely, if ever, attempted to regulate agricultural practices or dictate what farmers may or may not grow. But mandating low-flow toilets in residences while giving grape growers free rein to pump unlimited amounts of water is unfair and ineffective.
Wine and water are both vital commodities in San Luis Obispo County. With good stewardship of the groundwater basin, we believe the wine industry can continue to flourish, without creating hardships for neighboring residents.
That, however, is going to require strong, courageous action, starting with the county Board of Supervisors.
We call on the board to use every power at its disposal to ensure that the Paso Robles groundwater basin is adequately protected for the sake of the wine industry and the county’s economic health, as well as for North County residents whose futures so depend on it.