Over the Hill

Santa's Christmas wish: Protection of the Paso Robles groundwater basin

Phil Dirkx
Phil Dirkx

A couple of nights ago I had a pre-Christmas dream like the one Ebenezer Scrooge had in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” But my dream wasn’t a tour of Christmases past, present and future. My dream was a letter from Santa Claus about the ever-shrinking Paso Robles groundwater basin.

Actually, the letter wasn’t specifically to me. It was part of a mass mailing addressed “To anyone living over the Paso Robles groundwater basin.” But it was a serious letter. Santa wanted to get something off his chest.

“I was beginning to hope,” he said, “that the true, cooperative Christmas spirit was starting again to infect America. A few sensible compromises have recently fluttered in the air like snowflakes. Just this week the congressional Republicans and Democrats actually agreed on a budget.

“And earlier this month,” said Santa, “two opposing groups in the Paso Robles groundwater basin squabble agreed to compromise. What a pleasant surprise.”

One group represents large vineyards and the other represents smaller vineyards and other rural landowners.

“And now” Santa said, “they’ve wonderfully joined in a proposal to ask the state Legislature to create a special water district to manage and preserve the basin.”

The proposed district’s board would have seven members: two elected by large landowners, two by smaller landowners and three by all the district’s registered voters.

But Santa Claus is disappointed with nine other basin property owners, whose holdings range from 20 acres to 1,712. They filed two lawsuits to stop the county from regulating their water pumping.

Santa said, “They remind me of a story that my old friend Aesop told. It seems that one day a farmer noticed his goose was laying golden eggs, solid gold. Soon he was able to buy thousands of acres, a mansion, fine clothes and fine food.

“But one golden egg per day wasn’t enough him,” said Santa. “His mind came unhinged. He killed the goose to get more of her gold than one egg per day. But when he cut her open, she was empty.”

Santa Claus conceded that the Paso Robles groundwater basin isn’t dead yet, but it is losing an average of about 2,900 acre-feet of water per year. A firm of groundwater hydrologists blamed the water loss on drought and overpumping.

The overpumping could eventually cause areas of the underground basin to collapse. The ground above them could then sink into the overpumped areas and block them from ever refilling. As Santa put it, “Wells there would be as empty as that dead goose.”