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Paso Robles Water Wars: Can It Happen in Solano County?

Flickr: Michael W MurphyHere's my column from the 9/20/14 edition of the Reporter.  Note: Last week's hail doesn't count!

My Facebook feed is awash in a sea of grapes, images posted by local wineries of the mouthwatering harvest coming in.

I love Harvest. Soon it will be time for my next favorite season: Rain. At least I hope so.

The excitement of harvest and the lush pictures of grapes is a welcome distraction from the other images in our landscape.

The hills we optimistically call "gold" cannot be called anything but brown these days. They are colored not from the grass, once green and now beige, but from the dust showing through the balding thatch.

Nowhere is it as brown as it is in Paso Robles, where the sight of dusty ridges suggest a crisis even more alarming that our third year of drought.

The aquifer that feeds Paso Robles agriculture has declined dramatically and the expansion of vineyards is being blamed. The result? In the last two years, while wineries have converted 4,000 acres of range land into vineyards, the wells of rural homeowners have gone dry.

In 2013, the supervisors of San Luis Obispo county where Paso Robles is located, called for a moratorium on the planting of new vineyards, the same year Paso Robles was named "Wine Region of the Year" by Wine Enthusiast magazine.

Could this happen here? It is unlikely.

Most vineyards in Solano County are irrigated with water from Lake Berryessa and not dependent on an invisible aquifer with debatable water rights.


According to Jim Allan, Solano County's agriculture commissioner, "We're very fortunate that we just don't seem to have that problem because of the availability of surface water. We've had pretty much adequate groundwater recharge so that the people who are using wells have not had to go a whole lot deeper."

This is good news, since we city dwellers appreciate our farming neighbors. We're grateful for the open space, farm stands and of course, local wine.

"Solano County has been graced with water because of good planning in the 1950s," said Roger King, a grower with vineyards in Suisun Valley and Shale Peak near Vacaville. "Paso thought they had a aquifer that could never be dropped and just expanded like hell in vineyards and homes."

One of the more troubling upshots of the Paso Robles situation is that despite the wine industry's annual contribution of $200 million to the local economy, the water fights have turned many Paso Robles area residents against vintners. Foreign investors who have recently entered the wine economy are especially easy targets.

The California legislature recently sent a three-bill package to the governor's desk, proposing state regulation of aquifer management in those cases where local entities fail to protect over drafted groundwater. The governor signed the legislation on Tuesday.

Many farmers are skeptical about a change to the current system, expecting bureaucracy and a loss of local control. On the other side, water advocates worry that the recharging of the state's aquifers will take many, many years, even with state control.

So we wish, we pray, and maybe even dance for rain. It won't be long, we hope, that waves of grass return to the hills and vast lakes return underground.

In a climate like ours water will always be a contentious subject.

But one thing we can agree upon, what we could really use, soon, is some rain.


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