The issue: How do we protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin?
The wine industry has been an important economic driver in San Luis Obispo County. Besides jobs and taxes, it has contributed significantly to tourism growth.
The industry’s astronomical growth in the county is due to the fact that county wineries and vineyards are reaping huge profits due to location and county’s human and natural resources. The reason wineries keep on investing in vineyards is that they have a high return on their investments in San Luis Obispo County.
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Does it lead to the conclusion that it is a win-win situation?
North County is facing a major water crisis. The most affected are rural homeowners. The water situation has been deteriorating for at least two decades. The Board of Supervisors has the stewardship responsibility for managing the county’s natural and other resources. It has failed miserably in water management. The board has an insatiable appetite for technical reports, analyses and collecting data, but little focus on finding solutions to the problem.
Supervisor Frank Mecham’s district is the hardest hit by unsustainable levels of underground water pumping from the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The agenda for the Nov. 9, 2010 meeting, when he was chairman of the board, included discussion of the problem. Supervisor Mecham asked Iris Priestaff, an outside consultant, to give her assessment of the situation. Priestaff emphatically stated twice, “Now is the time for action.” That was more than two and a half years ago.
Some supervisors have repeatedly stated that the county government has no power to restrict planting by vineyards. During the May 7, 2013, meeting, Supervisor Adam Hill asked the County Counsel’s representative if anything could be done. He replied that if an emergency situation exists in land use, the county has the ability to restrict further development of vineyards through an urgency ordinance.
Clearly, Supervisors Debbie Arnold and Mecham are terrified that the vineyards may take the case to adjudication if land use or groundwater pumping restrictions are enacted. As elected representatives, they should have the courage and political will to sit down with large vineyard owners and insist that they help solve the problem they created; it is their social responsibility and the right thing to do. A good starting point is to approach the top 20 wineries in the North County, which pump 40 percent of the groundwater. The total usage by all vineyards is approximately 70 percent.
It is heartbreaking to listen to rural residents’ stories: Their wells have gone dry, and they do not have $25,000 to $40,000 needed to drill a new well; they have to get water trucked into to their homes; some have taken second mortgages on their homes to afford a new well. Almost all of them are older people living on fixed incomes. Supervisors Hill and Bruce Gibson urged their colleagues to provide immediate relief to these desperate people. The COLAB representative came up with a suggestion that was immediately transformed into a motion by Supervisor Arnold to “direct” the staff to assess feasibility of fee waivers and low-interest loans to rural homeowners for drilling new wells. The motion passed. When a party suffers a financial loss from actions of another party, the party inflicting the loss has to compensate the victim. In this case, these supervisors believe that the victim should make up the loss.
Never mind that California water rights state, “In case of insufficient (underground) water to supply fully the requirements of all, the available supply must be equitably apportioned.”
The county has classified the Paso Robles groundwater basin as Severity Level III, the most serious level. Yet, there is no sense of urgency. Supervisor Mecham stated that, like earthquakes, droughts occur. Earthquakes are acts of nature, while the Paso Robles underground water basin crisis is man-made. It could have been prevented by timely actions.
Collecting more evidence, doing more feasibility studies and paying lip service to fool citizens into thinking they are doing everything they can is not leadership. It is dereliction of responsibility. Rural homeowners need immediate relief. For the permanent solution, a water management district with teeth needs to be formed. Supervisors were elected by voters, not by any industry group or any organization with its own agenda.
Zaf Iqbal is past associate dean and professor emeritus of accounting at Cal Poly's Orfalea College of Business. He volunteers with local nonprofits, including the Children's Resource Network and Hospice Partners. He is past president of the San Luis Obispo Democratic Club. The California Legislature recently presented him with a Certificate of Recognition for contributions to the community and exceptional support of those in need.