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Adelaida area residents call for groundwater protections amid development and drought

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The 515-acre property neighboring David Leader's in rural Adelaida has been dry-farmed by one family for decades—a practice that was the historical norm for the agricultural region between Atascadero and Paso Robles, west of Highway 101.

WHERE'S THE WATER? Landowners between Atascadero and Paso Robles and west of Highway 101, are asking SLO County for stronger groundwater protections amid increased development and drought. - FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • File Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • WHERE'S THE WATER? Landowners between Atascadero and Paso Robles and west of Highway 101, are asking SLO County for stronger groundwater protections amid increased development and drought.

But as has become more and more common recently, when the land was sold a few years back, the out-of-state buyer arrived with more ambitious plans. Since 2016, at least three groundwater wells 500 feet or deeper—with casings as wide as 10 inches—were drilled and dropped around the perimeter of the property to serve an incoming vineyard and new residence, according to county permits.

Leader and his family, who live on 15 acres, and other neighbors on smaller-acreage parcels, say their low-producing domestic wells aren't nearly as wide or drilled nearly as deep. Given the area's notoriously finicky groundwater supply, they're worried their new neighbors may suck them dry.

"Our wells are already struggling," Leader told New Times.

The affected residents west of Templeton aren't the only ones on the west side of the 101 anxious about increases in irrigated agriculture, its impact on groundwater, and the lack of oversight.

Vineyards and wells spawning across Adelaida are alarming locals, some of whom already saw their wells go dry during the last drought. One area landowner who lost a well told New Times last year that replacing it cost him $30,000, and he spent nearly a year trucking in water.

Amid another severely dry winter, the community is mobilizing and calling on the county to better protect the area from the impacts of commercial agriculture.

"Everyone bought up on the west side and they've just developed it like crazy," said Yvonne Printup, a longtime resident in west Templeton. "We're doing it to a point where it's going to go dry. There are no regulations at all. I'm tired of hearing stories about peoples' wells going dry."

Unregulated aquifer

To plant a vineyard west of Highway 101 is a lot easier these days than planting one east of it.

The east side overlies the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, a 780-square-mile aquifer and the subject of significant attention and regulation from the state and SLO County.

In 2013, the county enacted an irrigation moratorium over that basin, and, per state law, now all new well applications require an analysis of water impacts. In addition, water agencies throughout North County, including the county itself, are spending millions of dollars to develop a "sustainability plan" for the Paso basin—also per state law.

Contrast that to what's happening across the freeway in Adelaida, where there's no irrigation moratorium and no sustainability efforts underway. Only wells drilled 800 feet or deeper require additional geologic analysis. Despite Adelaida's proximity to the Paso basin, the area's groundwater is considered geologically separate. Those who live over it say it's a fickle, low-producing maze of fractured rock holding pockets of groundwater.

"Whoever has the biggest straw wins the game," Printup said.

Since the county's tightened up on farming over the Paso basin, it's left the west side vulnerable to overdevelopment, residents say.

"What's happened is areas that do not have that moratorium in place are seeing heavy development with vineyards," said Rick Bohnsack, a landowner near Willow Creek Road whose neighbor is also developing a vineyard.

Locals brought these concerns to the SLO County Board of Supervisors on Feb. 20. In response, 1st District Supervisor John Peschong and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold formed a subcommittee and will meet with the community members to discuss the issue.

"I sympathize with those folks who are nervous," Supervisor Peschong, who represents the Adelaida and west Templeton region, told New Times. "People do have the right to farm. The question to me is how does it affect their neighbors?"

Peschong said he is open to discussing policies that would provide water protections for residents and their existing wells. He mentioned ideas like zoning the region for only dry-farm agriculture, instituting a deep-well moratorium, and requiring hydrogeological reports for deeper wells.

"We need to have a full ranging discussion with everybody," Peschong said. "If we continue this way and don't have additional rain, we really need to look at it."

Other ideas brought forward by the local residents included a moratorium on commercial wells within 500 yards of a neighboring well; requiring well drillers to put up a bond to cover the expense of a new well in the event of a neighbor's running dry; and a drilling fee paid to the county to build a fund that would offer low-interest loans to residents replacing lost wells.

"The perpetrator of the problem should be taking responsibility for the outcome," said Mark Lowerison, another area landowner.

Meanwhile, Leader, who neighbors the series of deep wells drilled on the formerly dry-farmed land, hopes the county can act quickly to help with a situation he and his neighbors feel relatively powerless to fix.

"We're just asking for protections for family wells," Leader said. "Apparently, you can put a well right on a property line and [neighbors] can't do a damn thing against it. It's their water, and they can do whatever they want." Δ

You can reach Staff Writer Peter Johnson at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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