County must be clear on Paso water exemption rules

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

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will again consider adopting specific criteria for granting exemptions to pumping restrictions in the depleted Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The goal is to grant exemptions to projects that were already in the pipeline when a partial moratorium on new vineyards and other growth was declared Aug. 27.

It’s been no easy task to draft a set of criteria, and we appreciate the county’s efforts. However, we’re concerned that the proposed requirements for exemptions — which include a list of tasks growers must have completed prior to Aug. 27 — are too loose and would result in further declines in the basin and additional hardships for rural residents.

Some of the proposed requirements for exemptions are too vague; for example, one allows growers to merely show that an area has undergone “observable and evident site preparation.”

Consider: The county already has received 15 requests for exemptions, totaling 1,483 acres. All but one are for vineyards — the single exception is for a 4-acre olive orchard. If the Board of Supervisors winds up adopting the guidelines outlined in the county staff report, it’s likely that at least nine of those requests for exemptions will be “clear yeses,” according to Kami Griffin, the county’s interim planning director. The other applicants had not yet submitted enough information to make a determination, she said.

Assuming all those applicants will qualify, that would mean an additional 1,500 to 2,000 acre-feet of water would be drawn from a basin already severely depleted. To put that in perspective, that could serve as many as 4,000 residential households.

If the basin is to have any chance to stabilize, the county must be stingy with exemptions, granting them only when there’s proof of a substantial economic hardship.

That may sound callous, but keep in mind that this so-called moratorium is not an absolute ban on development. Growth — including the planting of new vineyards — still will be allowed, as long as applicants install meters on any new wells and offset any new water use by saving an equal amount of water in the basin.

Some growers already plan to go that route; the county has received four applications for offsets, totaling more than 600 acres, from agriculturalists proposing to retire one crop and plant another. A county consultant is looking at additional ways to earn offset credits. That report is set to be presented to the board early next year.

We emphasize the potential for offsets because that concept tends to get lost in the discussions about the potential harm to the wine grape industry.

It’s not our intention to minimize the hardships. No one wants to see small family vineyards suffer, but we should recognize the composition of the community is changing to include large corporate interests that are in a better position to absorb the additional costs of offsets.

Justin Winery, which is among those seeking an exemption, is a prime example. Justin is now owned by Roll Global, a multinational conglomerate that also includes Teleflora (flower delivery service); FIJI Water (designer water bottled in Fiji); Paramount Farms (California Central Valley almonds, pistachios and other crops), POM Wonderful (pomegranate juice); and Suterra (a pest control product), among others.

Roll Global prides itself on its culture of giving back to the communities where it does business, yet it’s pressing for an exemption to plant an additional 300 acres of wine grapes in North County, in an area where wells have been going dry. Surely, Justin could either wait until the water issue is sorted out before doing additional planting or step into a leadership role by agreeing to conservation measures that would offset any additional water used by the new vines.

If the urgency ordinance to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin is to have any chance of success, the Board of Supervisors must develop an exemption policy that requires strong proof that an expansion already was under way on Aug. 27, plus demonstration that there will be economic hardship if the expansion is not allowed. Merely contemplating an expansion and undertaking a few last-minute preparations to meet a deadline should not be enough to qualify. Exemptions should be the exception, rather than the rule.