A vocal group of rural North County residents wants San Luis Obispo County to temporarily stop vineyard planting in the Paso Robles groundwater basin. The group, known as PRO Water Equity, came to the July 9 Board of Supervisors meeting telling familiar tales of wells going dry and water quality in the basin continuing to worsen.
Former 5th District supervisor Jim Patterson numbered among the North County ruralites urging the board to address the water crisis before the end of summer. All blamed the growing wine industry for straining the groundwater basin and causing their wells to fail.
“The basin is being depleted, and, as wells go deeper, it is at greater risk of being degraded,” Patterson said. “We are in one heck of an emergency. It needs to be addressed immediately.”
Rural basin residents complained about groundwater aquifer levels to the board on several occasions during 2013. Supervisors responded May 7 by asking the staff to study possible solutions.
At the end of public comment, the board decided not to schedule a July 16 discussion on emergency measures SLO County could adopt immediately. The supervisors instead instructed the staff to expedite the development of possible emergency ordinances.
Supervisor Frank Mecham said it would take more than a week for him to make up his mind because he wants certain legal questions answered first. He wondered about the legality of a planting moratorium, as well as how SLO County could stop corporate vineyard expansion without hamstringing family farms.
“How do we separate the owners?” Mecham asked.
The board split evenly on how soon it wanted to take action. Current 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold suggested getting input from the Blue Ribbon Committee, which the board formed in 2011 to steer basin management.
Supervisor Bruce Gibson disagreed and asked staff how soon it could put an ordinance together.
“We don’t need to refer this out to another committee,” Gibson said. “Not to be flippant, but I don’t really care whether the Blue Ribbon Committee is supporting these actions.”
Though most of the crowd called for a moratorium, a handful of speakers supported Mecham’s and Arnold’s decision to wait. Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business, a local conservative interest group, warned about moving too fast.
“If someone were to walk in here next week with a whole list of moratoria and limitations, folks would have very little time to react to that,” Brown said.
Wine industry representatives implored the board not to take a heavy-handed approach to basin management. The county has traditionally sought input through committees before taking significant action. They suggested allowing collaborative efforts to continue.
Retired Paso Robles teacher and coach Bill Stansbury differed with the notion that the groundwater dispute is a problem that needs collaboration between neighbors.
“The Gallos are not my neighbors,” Stansbury said.