A lawsuit in California's Paso Robles wine region could impact how vintners in an increasingly thirsty region get their water. The suit raises questions about permits that allow tapping of deep underground aquifers—tapping that geologists and environmentalists argue is causing California farmland to literally sink. In a state plagued by years of drought, one environmental group argues that state and county officials are not looking closely enough at these permits and that the long-term impact could hurt both residents and vintners.
In July, California Water Impact Network (CWIN), a Santa Barbara–based nonprofit, filed the suit against San Luis Obispo County, claiming that the local government had issued permits for drilling agricultural wells without the environmental review required by state law. "The county is currently rubber stamping well permits without any review of the consequences for the water supply in the region," said CWIN executive director Carolee Krieger.
CWIN claims that dozens of permits were issued in violation of California's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 (SGMA), a law aimed at suppressing over-pumping and depletion of groundwater resources.
County officials say their actions are not unusual. "We think our process for issuing well permits mirrors that of all the other counties in California," said Tim McNulty, assistant county counsel for San Luis Obispo County.
The lawsuit focuses on permits for four deep wells, which CWIN argues have a high potential of damaging underlying water basins. Of those four, two are for vineyards. One permit was issued to Justin Vineyards for a 915-foot well on Chimney Rock Road in Paso Robles, while a second was issued to Paso Robles Vineyards for a 1,600-foot well on Adelaida Road.
Justin Vineyards, along with its parent firm, the Los Angeles–based Wonderful Company, recently generated headlines when workers ripped out hundreds of native oak trees and graded steep hillside land at one of its properties. Wonderful Company owners Lynda and Stewart Resnick are also involved in a lawsuit over water rights in Kern County. The Resnicks issued an apology for the work in Paso, claiming they did not know about it and promising to both restore the land and set aside property for conservation.
But after years of drought, anything concerning water makes locals anxious these days. "It really scares me," said Justin Smith, winemaker at Saxum Vineyards. "Are [the Resnicks] here for the water? Are they just here to tap into the water supply?"
Mark Carmel, a spokesman for the Wonderful Company, told Wine Spectator, "Justin [Vineyards] does not comment on pending litigation. That being said, we have complied with all permitting requirements for all of our groundwater wells."
CWIN believes deep wells are creating a long-term problem that's harder to see than clear-cut hillsides. They worry that draining underground aquifers will worsen land subsidence. "This isn't a temporary problem that will disappear if heavy rain returns," said Krieger. "Land subsidence often destroys the structure of the aquifer and its holding capacity."
Depletion of underground water resources and resulting subsidence or sinking of land has been observed in California's Central Valley over the past hundred years. Intensive pumping of water from underground aquifers has helped turn the Central Valley into one of America's top sources for fruits and vegetables, but has also caused the altitude of land to drop significantly, in some cases by as much as 95 feet. Land subsidence is often accompanied by destruction of infrastructure such as bridges, highways, canals and irrigation systems that cave in as the land sinks.
But the Central Valley isn't the only ground that has been subsiding. Randall Hanson, a research hydrologist with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), explained that dwindling water supplies, degradation of underground aquifers and resultant land subsidence are "an issue throughout San Luis Obispo County" as well.
Water for farms is already becoming a sensitive topic among locals. Dana Merrill, owner of Mesa Vineyard Management in Templeton, has been managing vineyards in the Paso Robles region since 1989. Merrill says that in recent years "many longtime homeowners are finding their wells coming up dry with no city or state water backup to bail them out of trouble.
"These home wells," added Merrill, "are typically 200 feet deep, while agricultural wells tend to be much deeper. Homeowners often don't know there is a problem until the tap runs out of water, while farmers keep a close eye on their wells."
CWIN hopes to set a legal precedent with its lawsuit, paving the way for future regulation of large-scale well permits under the Sustainable Ground Water Management Act. "Our goal is to make sure that the groundwater basins in SLO are managed sustainably, especially the big wells," said Krieger.
Eric Jensen, winemaker at Booker Vineyards, believes vintners, farmers and other residents need to find their own solution. "We don't have an endless supply of water here," he said. "We've all got to sit down and talk about it because we can't just keep pumping wells. If people don't start getting responsible, the government will have to get involved, and we need more government involvement like we need a hole in the head. Everyone needs to be asking 'What can I do to help?'"