Water & Drought

SLO County sued after issuing permits for new wells to Justin Vineyards and others

A road leads to well site in a vineyard near Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.
A road leads to well site in a vineyard near Highway 46 east of Paso Robles. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A Santa Barbara-based water group has sued San Luis Obispo County, saying the county issued permits for three agricultural wells — including one to Justin Vineyards west of Paso Robles — without the proper environmental review.

The California Water Impact Network filed the lawsuit Thursday, saying the permits violated a 2014 state groundwater law aimed at curbing overpumping in groundwater basins in overdraft. In addition to Justin Vineyards, the lawsuit cites well permits issued to Lapis Land Co. and Paso Robles Vineyards.

The suit asks the county to set aside the three well permits until proper environmental review is completed. The suit says the county has issued “several dozen” well permits in the six-month period preceding the filing of the lawsuit and possibly hundreds in the past several years, treating all of them as ministerial approvals exempt from the California Environmental Quality Act. The three wells selected for the lawsuit are unusually large and deep, and they have the largest potential to damage water basins.

The suit names county health officer Dr. Penny Borenstein, whose department issues well permits.

The suit says the three wells are in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. However, they are not. Two are west of Paso Robles in the Adelaida area, and the third is in Cuyama Valley in the southeast corner of the county. The applications on file with the county are:

▪ Paso Robles Vineyard filed an application June 30 for a 1,600-foot well at 7377 Adelaida Road, west of Paso Robles.

▪ Justin Vineyards filed an application April 14 for a 915-foot well at 11680 Chimney Rock Road.

▪ The Lapis Land Co. filed an application April 1 for a 1,000-foot well in Cuyama Valley, 1.25 miles west of the intersection of highways 166 and 33.

Carolee Krieger, the Water Impact Network’s executive director, said that even though the wells are not in the Paso Robles groundwater basin, the underlying premise of the lawsuit is still valid.

“Because the county improperly characterized the approvals as ministerial actions exempt from CEQA, it failed to conduct environmental review of the well permits as CEQA required,” the lawsuit states. “The county thus prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to proceed in the manner required by law.”

“The county was just served with the lawsuit yesterday, and we are in the process of reviewing it and determining the county’s response to the petition,” said San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal in response to the lawsuit. The county believes that the issuance of well permits is being handled properly by our environmental health division.”

Krieger said she hopes the lawsuit will help set a legal precedent for future large-scale well permitting under the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The act requires sustainable groundwater plans for water basins that are in overdraft and allows local management agencies, such as counties and water districts, to limit pumping to sustainable levels.

“The groundwater law is so new, it has to be shaped by the courts,” Krieger said.

Krieger said the Water Impact Network wants to require the county to conduct a CEQA review before granting permits for large wells.

Doing so would allow researchers to collect information about the state of the area’s groundwater, she said. The public also would get a chance to comment on projects that may have an impact on their sources of water, Krieger said.

“While aspects of the county’s well-permitting standard may be ministerial, other aspects that are plainly discretionary render the Justin and PRV well permits discretion approvals subject to the environmental review provisions of CEQA,” the suit states.

Justin Vineyards and its parent company, the Los Angeles-based multinational Wonderful Co., have faced public outrage in recent months for clear-cutting thousands of oak trees and violated county ordinances by grading steep hillsides on a 380-acre Sleepy Farm Road property near Adelaida. The company previously cut an estimated 15,000 oaks on property near Chimney Rock and Adelaida roads in 2011.

Representatives from Justin Vineyards and Winery on Wednesday said work has begun on a three-phase plan to repair the 380-acre Sleepy Farm Road property west of Paso Robles, where thousands of mature oak trees were removed and steep hillsides impr