| PASO ROBLES, CA, June 19
PASO ROBLES, CA, June 19 By most measures,
California's Central Coast wine industry is thriving.
Between 1990 and 2014, harvested wine grape acreage in the
growing region around Paso Robles nearly quintupled to 37,408
acres, as vintners discovered that the area's rolling hills,
rocky soil and mild climate were perfect for coaxing rich,
sultry flavors from red wine grapes.
Wines from the region, located midway between San Francisco
and Los Angeles, have won the kind of international acclaim once
reserved for California's more famous growing areas of Napa and
Sonoma. And in 2010, a red blend from Paso Robles' Saxum
Vineyards was awarded one of winemaking's highest honors when
Wine Spectator magazine named it the worldwide "wine of the
But in the last few years, California's ongoing drought has
hit the region hard, reducing grape yields and depleting the
vast aquifer that most of the area's vineyards and rural
residents rely on as their sole source of water other than rain.
Across the region, residential and vineyard wells have gone dry.
Those who can afford to - including a number of large wineries
and growers - have drilled ever-deeper wells, igniting tensions
and leading some to question whether Paso Robles' burgeoning
wine industry is sustainable.
"All of our water is being turned purple and shipped out of
here in green glass," said Cam Berlogar, who delivers water,
cuts custom lumber and sells classic truck parts in the Paso
Robles-area community of Creston.
Unlike other states that treat groundwater as a shared
resource subject to regulation and monitoring, California's Gold
Rush-era rules have generally allowed property owners to drill
wells on their land and suck out as much water as they want.
"It's a matter of who has the longest straw at the bottom of
the bucket," said Berlogar. The water level in his own 57-foot
well has dropped 40 feet over the last six to seven years.
In August 2013, in response to the crisis, San Luis Obispo
County supervisors passed a moratorium on new vineyards and
other water-dependent projects. But the two-year ban, which will
expire this summer, did not apply to projects already in the
works, and so grape acreage has continued to expand.
Richard Sauret, a longtime resident who grows award-winning
Zinfandel grapes, has a reputation for conserving water in his
hilltop Paso Robles vineyards. Still, he relies on water pumped
from the aquifer when he needs to irrigate, and he worries about
that resource running out.
"There is way too much demand. I blame a lot of vineyards
like other people do," said Sauret. "There are a lot of farmers
who are going to have to farm with a hell of a lot less water."
CHANGE IS COMING
Spurred by the drought, California Governor Jerry Brown last
year signed a package of bills requiring groundwater-dependent
areas to establish local water sustainability agencies by 2017.
The agencies will then have between three and five years to
adopt water management plans, and then another two decades to
implement those plans.
Some residents worry that Paso Robles can't wait that long.
Aquifer depletion is difficult to model, but one report for
the county of San Luis Obispo projected that, even with no
additional growth, the water drawn from the basin would exceed
that going in by 1.8 billion gallons annually between 2012 and
"If it goes on unmanaged for another 10 years, it could
reach a point where we couldn't correct it," said Hilary Graves,
who makes wine under the Mighty Nimble brand.
Graves is a fourth-generation farmer whose ancestors came to
California as migrant workers after losing everything during the
"I would like to not have to retrace my family's footsteps
back to Oklahoma and Arkansas," said Graves.
If most residents agree that there is a crisis, they are
far from agreeing on how to address it.
In a divisive 3-to-2 vote, county supervisors recently
decided to move forward on creating a new water district that
will be governed by an elected nine-member board.
But many long-time residents and some of the region's
winemakers worry that large, well-funded newcomers will spend
freely to get sympathetic board members elected and then stick
local landowners with huge bills for infrastructure projects
that disproportionately benefit the larger players.
Susan Harvey, a rural homeowner and president of the
non-profit North County Watch, called the model for the proposed
district "we pay, they pump."
The residents are particularly concerned about politically
connected and deep-pocketed new arrivals, including Harvard
University, which has invested more than $60 million of
endowment funds in the purchase of about 10,000 acres in Santa
Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, and
Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the Beverly Hills billionaires behind
FIJI Water and the Wonderful brand of pomegranate, citrus and
The Resnicks' company bought Paso Robles' Justin Vineyards &
Winery in 2010 and two years later purchased a 740-acre ranch
that had been dry-farmed before it was converted to irrigated
Jennifer George, a spokeswoman for Justin's parent company,
Wonderful, said the winery's new vineyards have been planted
with grapes that take less water, and that the company will
eventually transition to dry farming the land. Harvard declined
to comment for this story.
'PICK YOUR POISON'
Fifth-generation farmer Cindy Steinbeck, of Steinbeck
Vineyards & Winery, helped found Protect Our Water Rights
(POWR), one of several groups that have sprung up around the
region's water issues, and is deeply skeptical about a new water
agency. Her group is urging land-owners to join a quiet title
action to protect their water rights, and would rather see the
courts oversee any plan to manage the basin's water.
"We are fighting the big boys," said Steinbeck, who says her
goal is to prevent family farmers from being pushed out of Paso
The region will be "an important test case for how other
highly-stressed groundwater basins might introduce new regional
oversight," said Jay Famiglietti, senior water scientist at
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The Paso Robles Agricultural Alliance for Groundwater
Solutions (PRAAGS) has been the driving force behind the
district. Its board includes a representative from J. Lohr
Vineyards & Wines, and at least one director affiliated with
Harvard's property interests in the area.
Other district supporters include Justin Vineyards and
County Supervisor Frank Mecham, who voted to establish the new
Mecham says he understands residents' concerns about it,
but he also understands the need for water management. Mecham's
great, great grandfather lost his cattle ranch in the area to a
"This is the cold, hard reality: You will be managed one way
or another. You've got to pick your poison," he said.
(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein; Additional reporting by Richard
Valdmanis in Boston; Editing by Sue Horton)