Plan to manage Paso water basin calls for cuts to pumping. Wine grape farmers are nervous

Years after North County residents noticed underground water levels were dropping, there’s finally a draft plan to sustainably manage the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

But some of the largest water users in the basin — commercial farmers — say they’ve been excluded from the planning process. They worry that proposed cuts to their water supply will hurt the wine industry, and the economy it supports.

“My biggest fear is my entire business and my entire investment is all tied up in wine grapes, and the fact we’ve got to irrigate it and the fact that cut backs in pumping could be mandated,” said Dana Merrill, who owns and manages several vineyards in the basin.

Mandated cut backs could threaten vineyard operations with thin profit margins, creating an economic hit that could ripple through the county.

The Paso Robles basin supplies water for about 40% of agricultural production in San Luis Obispo County.

But things can’t continue as they are. The amount of water pumped out of the ground simply cannot be sustained.

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Dana Merrill, owner of Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery in the Paso Robles area, looks over merlot grapevines as the leaves begin to turn. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Merrill said he and others want to be part of the team to create diverse solutions beyond simply cutting farms’ water supply. But, he said, Supervisor Debbie Arnold — who has led the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors’ policy on the issue — is so “paranoid” that irrigating farmers want to steal water that they’ve been denied a seat at the decision-making table. There’s no evidence that those investing in vineyards in the basin want to export water, and county policy prohibits that.

“I used to think they were pro-business,” Merrill said of supervisors Arnold and John Peschong. “They aren’t pro- the business I’m in.”

Arnold denies that anyone has been excluded and insists big water users don’t need more representation in the process, despite the fact that the board denied the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District a seat on the cooperative committee that developed the sustainable groundwater plan.

“You caused this problem by over irrigating, even during the drought. So we’re going to put you in charge? That’s just not fair to the majority of people who live in the basin,” Arnold said.

The issue came to a head Tuesday at the Board of Supervisors meeting, where the board majority defended itself against criticism from the state Board of Food and Agriculture for “limited outreach and engagement of irrigated agriculture, which has substantial capital investments” in the basin.

While Supervisors Arnold, Lynn Compton and John Peschong defended the county and the approach, Supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson said it’s been dysfunctional, political and had serious deficiencies.

Meanwhile, the basin is racing toward a January 2020 deadline to turn in a groundwater management plan to the state. Eventually, the county is going to need those big water users to implement the plan.

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Merlot grapes in the fall, near Templeton off of South El Pomar Rd. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

How much water are we talking about?

During the extreme multi-year drought, groundwater levels dropped rapidly, causing some residents’ shallow wells to pump nothing but air. Many areas in the basin experienced groundwater level declines of more than 70 feet, according to the Department of Water Resources.

The 2014 passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act marked a significant shift for farmers across the state. The resource that had been treated as a property right since the mid-1800s would now be regulated.

The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin is one of several that the state considers a high priority, requiring that a plan to sustainably manage the basin in the future be submitted to review to the state Department of Water Resources by January.

The plan to get to sustainability is mostly an analysis of past, current and future groundwater flows — how much water flows in and out every year. In some areas of the Paso Robles basin, water levels have been declining for many years, the plan says.

“Groundwater model results for a stimulation period 1981 through 2011 indicate that approximately 369,000 acre-feet were lost from storage in the Paso Robles Formation Aquifer,” the plan says.

To put that in perspective, an acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons: enough to cover a football field in a foot of water. California homes, on average, use between one-half and one acre-foot of water, according to the Water Education Foundation.

If no action is taken, the aquifer will deplete by nearly 14,000 acre-feet a year from 2020 to 2040 with no increase in pumping, the plan estimates. That’s between 20 and 15 percent of projected annual groundwater use.

That level of unbalance or over-pumping is nowhere near the level of crisis elsewhere.

In the San Joaquin Valley, some areas will have to cut water use by more 40% to balance the basin. The Public Policy Institute of California says between 535,000 and 750,000 acres of farmland in the Valley will have to be taken out of production to comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act.

Vineyards in the Paso Robles basin are mostly irrigated with groundwater. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Planting vineyards and pumping water

Agricultural pumping has accounted for about 90 percent of the total groundwater pumping in the Paso Robles basin, historically. The city of Paso Robles, rural-domestic use and small commercial pumping made up the rest, the plan says.

The amount of water farms suck out of the ground fluctuated over the years, mostly because of what crops and how many were planted. Two big changes in land use in the last few decades had measurable affects on the aquifer, the plan says.

The amount of water pumped from the aquifer was cut in half from between the early 1980s and late 1990s, when alfalfa fields and pastures were replaced with vineyards, the plan says.

Grapes are not as thirsty as alfalfa and pasture land. That led to increased water storage in the aquifer.

That trend didn’t last.

After the late 1990s, groundwater pumping doubled to about 100,000 acre-feet a year in 2007, “largely due to continued expansion of irrigated vineyard acreage” and that contributed to the decline in groundwater storage in the late 1990s.

More water than usual was pumped out of the ground during the recent drought. Pumping for agriculture increased by nearly 20%, about 11,700 acre-feet a year.

Residents used more water too, about 40% more. But overall the amount was still small compared to farms: about a 1,000 acre-feet a year increase.

Jerry Reaugh talks about why managing groundwater in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin is important, and why farmers need to have a say in how decisions about the future of water management are made. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

What’s the plan to sustainably manage the Paso basin?

The plan calls for a reduction in pumping to stop persistent declines in groundwater level in order to meet the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and Arnold has said that cuts to pumping are the solution.

“We’ve watched in the last decade, a lot of irrigated agriculture investing,” Arnold said. “And many of these folks are coming from outside the area to invest in our county. We’ve had a robust wine industry that’s been an integral part of our economy for many years.”

“But, the SGMA law was really enacted because all through California we’ve started to see groundwater basins be overpumped to the detriment of the basin,” she said. “We will need to reduce some pumping and I believe a 15 to 18% reduction in pumping will do the trick and can easily be accomplished by better management practices.”

Jerry Reaugh is a retired grape grower, director of the Estrella-El Pomar-Creston Water District, and consultant for J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines.

Speaking for himself, he criticized the plan and said, in part, that “there’s no clear path to sustainably manage the basin.”

He and others see a solution that’s more more complex than just cuts to pumping. That includes increasing water supplies.

For example, some farmers worked with the city of Paso Robles on a plan to use the city’s recycled water for irrigation. That water is too salty on its own, so farmers want to use unused water allocations from Lake Nacimiento to blend with the recycled water to pipe to the basin.

Merrill said there should be an opportunity for people who want out of the business to be able to sell their water rights to others in the basin, in addition to using more sustainable water practices.

The state Board of Food & Agriculture also criticized the county’s plan to solely focus on cuts to pumping in a September letter to the Board of Supervisors.

“Relying almost exclusively on groundwater pumping cutbacks is one solution, and every agriculturalist who has addressed the board acknowledges demand reductions must be a part of the plan, but not the sole option,” the letter says.

“Given the extraordinary agri-culinary tourism industry the county has built upon the foundation of wine grape growing and irrigated agriculture we are hopeful that the innovative, progressive farmers and ranchers in your community will have plentiful opportunities to engage in a transparent process to develop solutions.“

Reaugh and others suggest the development of an agricultural advisory group to participate in the SGMA process.

“Why wouldn’t the politicians support the backbone of our industry?” Reaugh said. “We just want a seat at the table.”

“Most of the farmers have come around said, ‘Oh, we’re pulling more water than we should. We need to fix this. It’s not that much water. How can we work together?’ ” Shandon-San Juan Water District director Willy Cunha said. That district does have a seat on the cooperative committee.

“We don’t need rich, powerful ag interests feeling angry,” Cunha said. “That could be really expensive for the city, the county and landowners.”

Ultimately, for Merrill, the future of water is personal. He’s got a business that he wants to hand off to his son, Matt.

“We’re trying to get the next generation involved, realizing it’s going to be their show to run,” Merrill said. “It’s our responsibility to try to turn it over to the next generations with a real chance to succeed. We need to make some progress on the water.

“We’re just not making enough progress soon enough, and we could do better.”

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: mvaughan@thetribunenews.com