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SLO County weighs fallowing program for Paso basin farmers

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Paso Robles has an oversupply of wine grapes, according to growers and winemakers. That's an existing problem that's been exacerbated by COVID-19.

"We clearly have an overplanting of grapes in that area. ... COVID is only the latest thing to come along," said Jerry Lohr, owner of J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines. "Let's say the market was at a certain level, COVID may make it 70 or 60 percent [of that]."

FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • FILE PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM

According to Lohr and some others in the wine industry, there's never been a better time to talk about creating a fallowing program for the North County region, which overlies the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

Due to a San Luis Obispo County policy that restricts new water use from the declining aquifer, many growers are scared to fallow their land, worried that it could lead to the forfeiture of their future water rights. The county ordinance, adopted in 2013, set a moratorium on new groundwater pumping.

If farmers could voluntarily fallow while also retaining their right to pump in some capacity in the future, it would result in a reduction in water use basinwide, Lohr said.

"It is quite a big deal, frankly," he said. "People are struggling to keep these old vineyards alive where it'd be less expensive for them to take them out, fallow, and it would save water."

SLO County officials are currently exploring a fallowing registration program, part of a package of proposed revisions to the basin ordinance. They'll go in front of the county Planning Commission on June 11 and the Board of Supervisors on Aug. 18.

SLO County 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold said a central part of the discussion will be whether the program would lead to a long-term reduction in basin pumping and be equitably available.

"We have to be careful," Arnold said. "How does it reduce the pumping to say you can fallow, but whenever you want to, you can start using again?"

Lohr noted that the program could be structured in a way that requires fallowing landowners to reduce their pumping by some equally applied percentage when they decide to return to irrigating.

"If everybody's asked to cut back 10 to 20 percent, at least you'd have 80 to 90 percent of your land," Lohr said.

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