Exemptions to North County water limits on supervisors' agenda

Newly planted vines are seen in the area of South El Pomar and El Pomar roads, east of Templeton, in July.
Newly planted vines are seen in the area of South El Pomar and El Pomar roads, east of Templeton, in July. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

County supervisors will decide Tuesday how to determine which vintners will be exempted from an emergency ordinance that prohibits new pumping from the depleted Paso Robles groundwater basin.

To date, 15 growers have requested exemptions for a total of 1,483 acres of new plantings, said Kami Griffin, acting county planning director. All but 4 of those acres are for wine grapes.

An acre of wine grapes typically uses 1.25 acre-feet of water a year, Griffin said. If all of the requests for exemptions are granted, the groundwater basin would be depleted by an additional 1,854 acre-feet of water a year, enough to serve at least an equal number of homes.

The 15 applicants for vested rights include a few large corporate wineries, such as Justin Vineyards, owned by Fiji Water owners Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who have applied for vested rights on 300 acres.

The Resnicks are no strangers to groundwater controversy. They are embroiled in a lawsuit that alleges they violated state utilities law by making money off a vast underground reservoir in the Central Valley called Kern Water Bank.

Most applicants are smaller vineyards that have applied for exemptions of less than 100 acres. The smallest is a request for an exemption on 4 acres slated to be planted with olive trees.

Using what are called vested rights, North County growers can claim that they should be exempted from the pumping moratorium due to economic hardship, mostly because of significant out-of-pocket investments in planting made immediately prior to the moratorium going into effect Aug. 27.

Supervisors told planners to hold off determining which growers are eligible for exemptions until exact criteria could be developed based on input from the growers and other stakeholders in the North County. They set Tuesday as the day for deciding that criteria.

Once the criteria have been set, it should take about a month for planning staff to determine who is eligible and who is not.

“We should be done by the end of December,” Griffin said.

Since Aug. 27, no new crops could be planted unless the grower offsets the groundwater to be used by a 1-to-1 ratio so there is no net loss of groundwater from the basin.

The main criteria that planners will use to decide if an exemption is warranted is whether the farmer had installed or applied for the new well prior to Aug. 27. Vintners must also show that significant infrastructure to support the new plantings had been put in place, such as delivery of vines to be planted, installation of irrigation systems, or installation of rows and trellises where the vines will be planted.

During past hearings, wine growers have urged supervisors to be as flexible as possible in setting vested rights or to reject the whole urgency ordinance. They argued that restrictive vested rights could be a severe economic hardship on vineyards, some of which have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing for new plantings.

“Spend your time forming a water district, bringing new water into the area for a more secure and reliable water supply for everyone and stop wasting money on enforcement and more government regulations,” said Serena Friedman, of Four Sisters Ranch in Paso Robles, in a letter to supervisors.

Conversely, rural homeowners and others who are alarmed at the crisis in the groundwater basin have urged supervisors to be as restrictive as possible. Loose vested rights will allow too many exemptions and defeat the purpose of adopting an emergency ordinance, they said.

“Loosening the criteria would render the ordinance virtually ineffectual as the restrictions would be so weak that most petitioners would be able to move forward with planting and push the basin more than an additional thousand acre-feet into overdraft,” said Sue Luft, president of PRO Water Equity, a group of groundwater basin residents, in a letter to supervisors.