California water crisis, Central Coast chapter

Posted by Christine, June 16, 2013

The San Luis Obispo Tribune takes on the water situation in the North County. thanks for this five-part series. This is an example of newspapers doing what no other person or agency will do. Great graphics, too.

The series concluded with a front page editorial:

By The Tribune —

Much as we value what wineries have contributed to San Luis Obispo County — jobs, tax revenue, tourist dollars, cachet — thirsty vineyards cannot be allowed to threaten North County’s main water supply.

That unacceptable tradeoff already is happening to a degree. If nothing is done to protect the Paso Robles groundwater basin, it will only get worse.

As explained in The Tribune’s recent five-part, investigative series, Wine and Water, the basin is in serious danger. Water levels are dropping and many property owners have been forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars to dig deeper wells.

At this juncture, pointing fingers at decision makers over what occurred in the past won’t help. We can’t turn back the clock and reduce the amount of commercial and residential growth that’s occurred in the city of Paso Robles, or the number of vineyards that have been planted in surrounding rural areas.

But we must not exacerbate the problem by allowing water consumption to continue unabated. Since vineyards use an estimated 67 percent of the water pumped from the basin, they must be key players in any plan to correct the situation.

So what can be done?

There is no single solution; what’s needed is a multi-pronged approach consisting of short- and long-term remedies.

Because most of the wineries are in the unincorporated areas of North County, we urge the Board of Supervisors to take the lead in the following actions:

• An urgency ordinance. The Board of Supervisors must act as quickly as possible to stabilize the situation by addressing agricultural water consumption. Various temporary measures, such as prohibiting new agricultural ponds, requiring water off-sets for new irrigated crops or placing a moratorium on conversion of pasture land to irrigated crops are needed until a permanent solution is crafted.

• Conservation mandates. It’s not enough for some vineyard owners to voluntarily practice water conservation. It should be standard operating procedure for all wineries to use water-saving methods, which include planting vines with drought-tolerant rootstalks and using soil moisture sensors and other technology to use the least amount of water possible.

Many local jurisdictions require low-flow toilets and showerheads in homes and drought-resistant landscaping in yards. That same principle should apply to vineyards.

• Acquiring supplemental water. State water and unallocated Nacimiento water are a couple of the alternatives under discussion. While we don’t believe any alternative water source is plentiful or dependable enough to solve the problem, it would take some pressure off the basin.

• Forming a water district. Again, discussions already are under way; the Board of Supervisors has directed county staff to do some preliminary research and report back later in the summer.

While it won’t be an easy task to set up a water district or agency, we believe this ultimately will be the best and most comprehensive solution. It’s worked well in several other California counties, including Orange County, where a water agency has operated since 1933.

A couple of caveats: A North County district must include all affected landowners, not just the largest property owners. And to be truly effective, we believe the district must monitor water use and enact preventive measures to avoid over-pumping the basin. That could mean metering water consumption, charging pump fees and limiting vineyard acreage — controversial proposals that already are fueling speculation of a lawsuit.

While no one wants to see adjudication of the basin, when public health and welfare are at stake, elected leaders have a clear duty to act. They cannot allow themselves to be bullied into taking weak measures or doing nothing at all.

We recognize that none of this will be easy.

San Luis Obispo County has rarely, if ever, attempted to regulate agricultural practices or dictate what farmers may or may not grow. But mandating low-flow toilets in residences while giving grape growers free rein to pump unlimited amounts of water is unfair and ineffective.

Wine and water are both vital commodities in San Luis Obispo County. With good stewardship of the groundwater basin, we believe the wine industry can continue to flourish, without creating hardships for neighboring residents.

That, however, is going to require strong, courageous action, starting with the county Board of Supervisors.

We call on the board to use every power at its disposal to ensure that the Paso Robles groundwater basin is adequately protected for the sake of the wine industry and the county’s economic health, as well as for North County residents whose futures so depend on it.

Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.

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How the growth of the wine industry and poor resource management are sucking wells dry and threatening the North County’s future

By David Sneed —

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a five-part series. Coming Monday: How the falling groundwater levels have affected four North County homeowners and businesses.

Deep beneath the peaceful countryside, the North County’s primary water source is facing an unprecedented crisis.

Over the past 30 years, levels in the underground aquifer have dropped precipitously, 80 to 100 feet or more in some areas.

These declines pose a profound threat for the region, residents and economy. Rural homeowners are facing the prospect of losing their homes because their wells are going dry. Vineyards could lose access to a crucial resource.

And the crisis in the groundwater basin is only expected to get worse — much worse. Rainfall this winter was only about 40 percent of normal, leaving the area even more short of water at a time when vineyards are planting as many as 8,000 new acres of wine grapes.

“Lowering pumps, digging new wells and trucking in water to meet the needs of our families — this is the reality people are already facing in our area,” said Lindsay Pera, a homeowner in the El Pomar area east of Templeton. “We are not ahead of this problem. We are smack dab in the middle of it.”

Hardest hit is a 5-mile-wide by 10-mile-long swath of land east of Paso Robles. Like many families in this area, the Peras have already had to lower the pump in their well twice to keep up with the declines.

The communities of Paso Robles, Atascadero and Templeton face spending hundreds of millions of dollars for new water sources such as the Nacimiento pipeline. Most troubling of all is that the crisis is pitting North County residents against vintners, an industry that pumped nearly $200 million into the county’s economy in 2012, making it a leading economic driver.

Hidden reservoir

Most of San Luis Obispo County north of the Cuesta Grade sits atop the Paso Robles groundwater basin, one of the largest underground reservoirs in the state of California.

It contains an estimated 30 million acre-feet of water. That’s enough to supply twice as many households for a year as there are in California.

Sixty-seven percent of the water pumped out of the basin is used by agriculture, with the largest chunk going to vineyards, according to the latest studies in 2006. Trailing far behind agriculture are municipal water users, accounting for 18 percent of the water use in the basin, and rural domestic users, estimated to account for 13 percent.

However, it is impossible to know how much water is being pumped out of the basin and by whom. Well owners are not required to meter their wells or report usage, and vineyard owners are not required to get discretionary permits to plant more acres of grapes.

Few people know as much about the groundwater basin as Sue Luft, a neighbor of Pera’s. She sits on the county’s Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Blue Ribbon Steering Committee, a group tasked by the county to find solutions to the groundwater crisis.

She also serves as an environmental representative and vice chairwoman of the San Luis Obispo County Water Resources Advisory Committee and on the board of the Central Coast Vineyard Team. The top 20 wineries in the North County are estimated to take 40 percent of the groundwater, Luft said.

“The biggest users of water are the vineyards — that’s just a fact,” she said. “Within 10 to 15 years, we are going to start losing homes and vineyards.”

For their part, many in the wine industry have only partially recognized their role in a dwindling Paso Robles groundwater basin. While they acknowledge that wine grapes have come to dominate North County’s agricultural landscape, bringing with them great economic benefit to the region, many believe that grape growers have been unfairly targeted.

Grapes, they contend, require less water than other crops such as alfalfa, and commercial and residential development are equally to blame for groundwater woes. Moreover, they say their industry has been in the forefront of water conservation and that more needs to be done to determine how much water is being used and for what purposes.

“We have had a lot of discussions, and there is recognition that there will probably be multiple solutions to address the problem … from every stakeholder,” said Dana Merrill, a member of the blue ribbon steering committee and owner of Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery.

“We are in a dynamic area where cities are growing, the wine industry is doing well and more plantings are going in. I will say that we all need to recognize that everybody uses water.”

Threat to homeowners

The biggest danger of dropping groundwater levels for the homeowner is the need to drill a new, deeper well. A new well typically costs $25,000, said Kurt Bollinger, manager of Miller Drilling Co. of Paso Robles.

Historically, the water table in the basin was 300 to 350 feet deep. Now, a replacement well is typically 700 feet deep. Many homeowners have to take out a second mortgage on their homes to afford the new well.

“It all boils down to economics,” Bollinger said. “We all realize the basin is in overdraft, and the vineyards could not have picked a worse time to plant new acreage.”

Those who cannot afford a new well face an even grimmer reality. Some are forced to have water trucked to their homes. Others can only live in their homes during wet months when wells tend to recharge. Still others face the loss of their homes.

“If you don’t have a lot of equity in your home, you’re sunk,” Luft said.

A profitable winery is in a better position to afford to deepen its wells than a rural homeowner on a fixed income. But wineries will eventually reach a point where their wells are so deep the expense of pumping the water will eliminate their profit margins, Bollinger said.

“Can you grow a product and make money if your pump is at 800 feet?” he asked. “Pumping costs are going to quadruple. It’s all a matter of horsepower.”

What can be done?

In an effort to deal with this looming crisis and avoid lawsuits, the county has formed the steering committee that includes Luft, Merrill and 15 other stakeholders. The committee is examining a wide range of solutions, most of which center on voluntary conservation and developing new water sources.

“I think the one thing we’ve heard is that there is no silver bullet here,” said Larry Werner, chairman of the steering committee. “It’s going to take a lot of little steps to get us to the finish line.”

County Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district is hardest hit by the groundwater crisis, agrees that there will be no quick fix. He said he thinks any solution will require three key components: the political will to make hard decisions, cooperation among the stakeholders, and the money to pay for expensive new water sources and infrastructure.

“I just hope that we are not in the situation where the guy with the most money wins,” he said. “That would be a very sad situation. Everyone needs to be considered in this whole scheme of things.”

Others, such as PRO Water Equity, a group of rural homeowners, think the county is not going far enough. They say the county needs to form a water district or other agency that can implement pump taxes and other techniques that will penalize overpumping and create conservation incentives.

“Some people will do things voluntarily, but most people won’t,” Luft said. “The only way to manage the basin is to meter every well and appoint someone to manage use.”

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a five-part series. Coming Tuesday: At the center of the debate is the wine industry, which is both a major water user and an essential driver of the county’s No. 1 industry: tourism.

On the surface, the rural parts of San Luis Obispo County north of the Cuesta Grade are a picture of pastoral idyll.

Rolling hills are dotted with country homes — some modest, some palatial — many with horses and other livestock grazing peacefully nearby. Much of the area is also covered with thousands of acres of vineyards.

Residents bought or built their homes there to enjoy the simple country life. But their dream of raising a family and maybe a few animals is in peril.

They are at ground zero of the Paso Robles groundwater basin crisis.

The levels of wells that supply water to their homes have dropped precipitously in the past decade. Many are worried about their wells going dry and losing their homes.

• • •

Dianne Jackson lives on two and a quarter acres near Geneseo and Union roads with her two dogs.

Her property is surrounded by vineyards. The steady drone of the vineyards’ powerful groundwater pumps frequently echo through the neighborhood.

She bought her home in 2000 and watched as the water level in her well dropped 75 feet. A year and a half ago, her well went dry and she had to pay $28,000 to have a deeper one drilled.

Her well was at 350 feet when it went dry. Her new well is at 850 feet with the water quality excellent.

“I hope it will last me until I’m dead,” she said.

“At the rate they are sucking it out, I don’t think so.”

She describes the water situation in the North County as a time bomb waiting to go off and is blunt in ascribing blame for her well going dry.

“I do really like to point a long finger at the wineries in particular,” she said. “They are taking our water and making money on it.”

“I love wine but I don’t wash my clothes in it or take a shower in it,” she added.

Jackson’s home is full of water-saving devices, and she grows only cactuses in her garden. She would like to see real restrictions put on the wine industry that would force it to conserve water as conscientiously as she does, such as a planting moratorium or requirements to grow their grapes without irrigation.

“If San Luis Obispo County can dictate how many horses I have on my property and if the county can say they can’t use plastic bags at the grocery store, the county needs to tell the wineries that they can’t take any more water out of the ground,” she said.

• • •

The Jardine Road area just east of Paso Robles is a semirural neighborhood of modest single-story homes on 1- or 2-acre lots.

Joy Sprague has lived on a 2-acre parcel off Jardine Road with her husband, Glenn, and two daughters for the past 26 years. Few areas have been harder hit by the groundwater crisis.

“Everyone around us has had to drill a deeper well,” she said.

Like many residents of the area, she feels angry, frightened and betrayed. She has seen the water level in her well fluctuate over the years depending on rainfall. Her pump is in only 50 feet of water and she is concerned that she, too, will need a new well considering the rates of groundwater decline the area is experiencing — nearly 100 feet in the past 30 years.

The county has classified the groundwater basin as in a Severity Level III, which is the most severe level, meaning that water is being pumped out of the aquifer at unsustainable rates. Sprague is baffled by the fact that county and local officials are unwilling to put any kind of restriction on pumping.

“There’s a reason to have these severity levels,” she said. “It’s to say ‘no.’ ”

She is angry at the vineyards that suck the bulk of the water out of the aquifer. She also resents the city of Paso Robles, which she thinks has allowed too much development, including four sprawling golf courses that also use a lot of water.

“I think they should think about the people who are already here and be smart about it,” she said. “I can see that cities need to grow, but they can’t approve everything that comes along.”

• • •

In the El Pomar region east of Templeton, the rolling hills are covered with vineyards, but the homes that dot the countryside are bigger and more expensive than the homes east of Paso Robles.

Here, too, homeowners are alarmed by the reductions in the water table they have seen over the past decade.

“We lost 15 feet last year,” said Sue Luft, who grows 4 acres of zinfandel grapes with her husband, Karl, on their property off Almond Drive. She serves on many water oversight bodies. “At this rate, I figure we have five years or less before our well goes dry.”

The Lufts still have 150 feet of water above their well. They are expecting even greater losses this year because of the dry winter this year.

Well owners in this area of the groundwater basin face a problem that others do not, she said. Geothermal activity injects dissolved minerals into the groundwater that causes the quality of well water to go down as the water level falls, adding another layer of urgency to the situation.

All of this has Luft and her neighbors frustrated that so little has been done to address the problem. Their biggest fear is that people will begin to lose their homes because of dry wells.

“The county does not need a bunch of shuttered homes,” said Nat Sherrill, a neighbor of Luft who has seen two of the four wells on his 80-acre property go dry because of a loss of 50 feet of groundwater in the past 10 years. He is getting by on one well but is getting ready to activate the other.

Another possibility is that people’s homes will become little more than seasonal cabins with people using them only during the winter and springtime when rain temporarily recharges wells.

• • •

In December, Cam Berlogar of Creston did something he’s never done before. In fact, he did it five times.

He got into his truck mounted with a 3,200-gallon water tank and delivered emergency water to five households whose wells had either gone dry or were producing too little water to support domestic needs.

Before then, water deliveries were only needed during the dry summer months. Wells going dry in December is the result of dramatic drops in groundwater levels coupled with an unusually dry winter.

Delivering water is one of several contracting businesses Berlogar has. As a member of the Creston Advisory Body, he is very familiar with the area and doesn’t see water conditions getting any better any time soon.

“It’s going to get ugly around here in the next couple of decades,” he said. “The majority of our water is being turned purple and shipped out of the county.”

Berlogar has as many as 20 water customers in the North County with six calling on him regularly. Most of his customers have slow or dry wells. Most of these people can’t afford a new, deeper well or have been told there is no water to be had deeper.

The water Berlogar delivers is not certified as potable, so it is up to each individual customer to decide how to use it. Many drink it. Others drink only bottled beverages and use his water for laundry, washing dishes and other nonconsumptive uses.

He is pessimistic about the future of the groundwater basin and thinks lawsuits are inevitable. He believes pump taxes or other techniques for limiting pumping from the aquifer are likely.

“I agree you should be able to do what you want with your land, but there should be some law that incorporates some fairness,” he said. “There’s nothing Joe Homeowner can do to fix this problem, so the county is going to have to man up and make enemies.”

Read more here:

By Julie Lynem —

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a five-part series. Coming Wednesday: For years, Paso Robles leaders thought their city sat on an endless reservoir of water. The past three decades have revealed a harsh reality: It’s just not true.

With its miles of vineyard-covered hills, Paso Robles is a wine enthusiast’s dream and a boon to the local economy. Wine and its related businesses generate thousands of jobs, from the workers who tend the vines to those who design the wine labels, and it has helped spawn a booming tourism industry.

Although the wine industry’s growth over the past 30 years has been one of the key economic drivers for San Luis Obispo County, it has come at a high price. The Paso Robles groundwater basin has suffered declining water levels, and that has fueled grave concern about whether there will be enough water to sustain North County residents and businesses — as well as the wine industry.

Wine-grape growers have been at the center of the debate over the basin because agriculture — primarily vineyards — pumps more water from the aquifer than any other user, about 67 percent, according to the latest basin study in 2006.

Although growers are improving their water conservation methods, critics say it’s not enough to stop the precipitous drop in water levels, mainly because demand is outpacing the aquifer’s supply. Some are urging the county to adopt a variety of regulations, much to the dismay of local wine-grape growers who believe compromises must be found to ensure the industry’s economic viability.

“Wine has been a wonderful industry for our economy, but it could be short-lived if nothing is done,” said Laura Edwards, of the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District and a member of the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin Blue Ribbon Steering Committee tasked with developing solutions to replenish the groundwater basin.

The power of grapes

Whether it’s visitors hiking through vineyards, sipping wine in tasting rooms or attending annual festivals such as Sunset Savor the Central Coast, wine touches many facets of local tourism. As the county’s top economic driver, tourism generated $1.2 billion in visitor spending in 2011, according to the latest information available from Visit San Luis Obispo County, the county’s visitors and conference bureau, and the U.S. Travel Association.

Tourism employs nearly 16,000 people in the county in jobs ranging from hotel and food service to arts and entertainment, retail and transportation, according to the bureau. Paring back wine-grape growth could have a ripple effect on the county’s overall economy, cautioned Jordan Levine, an economist with Beacon Economics, a Los Angeles-based firm that keeps track of the region’s economic health.

It would mean fewer jobs at wineries, in the vineyards and in other sectors that help to support the industry, including the harvesting of wine grapes, processing and production. It could impact utility providers, people who produce fertilizers, “agri-business stuff that forms the supply chain for the wineries,” he said.

Moreover, if grape growers and wineries aren’t as successful, it could have an adverse effect on county tourism.

“Lots of people go to San Luis Obispo County for the climate, the cities and the beaches, but alongside of that, there’s that wine-tourist element,” he said. “If you mitigate that incentive, then there might be more competitive pressure from other parts of California for those tourists.”

Tourism engine

The current economic impact of the county’s wine industry is unknown because no recent studies have been done. The latest study, released in 2007 by MKF Research LLC, found that wine and its related products and services generated nearly $1.8 billion in economic value for the Paso Robles American Viticultural Area and greater San Luis Obispo County wine and wine-grape industries, including more than 8,000 full-time jobs with wages of more than $240 million, more than $86 million in state and local taxes and 1.2 million winery tourist visits.

Although there is no current data — the MKF study was based on 2006 data — a visit to North County wine country, with its rows of vineyards and wineries tucked into the hills, is proof that viticulture reigns.

“Wine gives another dimension to the tourism market in SLO County,” Levine said. “It’s what differentiates it from Santa Barbara or even someplace like Monterey. In SLO, it goes hand in hand. It’s part of the package that makes tourism in SLO attractive.”

Since wine grapes were first planted in the 1970s and 1980s in the North County, they have steadily replaced traditional nonirrigated field crops — such as barley, wheat and oat hay — as well as almond and walnut orchards. County officials attribute the move toward wine-grape production to economics, as property owners discovered they could get a greater return per acre on wine-grape crops.

Wine grapes now exceed every other agricultural crop in the county in cash value except one — strawberries, grown in the South County. Last year, the county’s wine grapes set a new record for value at more than $197 million. Total production of wine grapes increased 31 percent in 2012, largely because the crop rebounded from the previous year’s April frost.

Grape acreage continues to grow as wineries expand and plant new varietals.

In 1972, wine-grape acreage stood at 540 acres. By 1989, it had increased to 7,649 acres, and by 1998 to 11,897. As of last year, county agriculture officials reported that there are 36,550 bearing acres of wine grapes and more than 38,000 planted acres in the county, with the majority of them — about 32,000 — in the North County.

No one knows for sure how many acres of North County wine grapes will be planted in the future or which property owners are planting because there are no land-use permitting requirements for crop production, and the county’s agriculture officials do not track vineyard plantings outside of pesticide use.

Last year, though, planted wine-grape acreage expanded by 3 percent, again mostly in the North County. It has been estimated that an additional 3,000 to 8,000 acres will be planted this year. That’s a jump of 8 to 21 percent.

Paso Robles well understands the impact.

Nearly 40 years ago, many buildings downtown sat empty, and on a “Saturday in July, you could have driven to the city park at 6 p.m. and had any parking space you wanted,” recalled Gary Eberle, one of the North County’s early wine pioneers.

“Now, you drive to the city park at 5 or 6 and you have to go blocks to find a parking space,” he said.

Wineries’ water use

Like many wine-grape growers, Eberle argues that wine grapes use less water than other crops such as alfalfa, and contends that those outside the industry have a misconception about how much water it takes to grow wine grapes. The less water used on the vine, the better quality the grape, and it’s the quality that helps them to remain competitive, growers say.

“Vineyards have gotten a bum rap,” Eberle said. “Grapes at maturity on drip irrigation are not using that much water.”

Regardless of whether wine grapes are an efficient crop, the “fundamental issue is whether the industry is consuming enough to make the groundwater table drop,” said Mark Battany, who conducted a study measuring annual irrigation over a three-year period at 84 vineyards in an area of the basin that experienced significant declines in water levels.

“If you look at an individual vineyard, the chances are that the vineyard itself isn’t using that much water,” said Battany, a viticulture farm adviser with UC Cooperative Extension. “If anything, it might be using too little. But what we have to look at is the totality of all the vineyards, which is a large number of water users.”

If total acreage expands and the average amount of water use per acre remains the same, “then yes, the vineyard acreage as a whole will consume more groundwater and thus place increased stress on the groundwater basin,” Battany said.

Sue Harvey, a member of PRO Water Equity, a group of rural landowners seeking the equitable allocation of groundwater, believes the county has mismanaged the basin.

She and others in the group want an urgent moratorium on all agricultural overhead irrigation, including frost protection measures, as well as a moratorium banning construction of all reservoirs for the storage of water for irrigation purposes.

Aside from the harm of dropping water levels for homeowners, vineyard owners likely to suffer most are those small, family-owned operations that “won’t have the financial ability to dig deeper wells,” she said.

Nat Sherrill, vice president of the PRO Water Equity group and a former winery owner in the Santa Cruz Mountains, agreed.

“It’s a politically charged thing, and I think the smaller growers are much more in fear of what’s going on than the large growers,” who have enough money behind them and will be able to take their investment and amortize it over a short period of time, he said. “If water runs out, they can walk away and do something else.”

Small farmers don’t have that option, he said. “They have got problems, and I know some that are scared to death they will run out of water.”

Sherrill added: “I think it’s fair to say there are a number of growers that are very responsible about water use, and a number of them that have used far more than they needed to.”

There was a time, Eberle acknowledged, when “people said water from the basin could never be depleted.”

But there’s broad agreement among growers now that dropping water levels are a problem, water is expensive and that it pays to use less, said Eberle, noting that paying for water is about a third of his budget. Eberle is using a quarter of what he used to.

“When you get to a point where water is so expensive that you can’t compete, it (vineyards and wineries) will go away,” he said.

Seeking compromise

From an economic standpoint, the community cannot afford to run out of water or lose vineyards, said Dana Merrill, a blue ribbon steering committee member, owner of Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery in Templeton and Mesa Vineyard Management, a firm that manages thousands of North County vineyard acres.

Merrill isn’t in favor of broad restrictions for wineries, but he is open to a solution that balances the needs of citizens with that of agriculture.

“You can’t stop everything,” said Merrill, also a member of a new agriculture group pushing for the development of a water management district. “To me, we need a viable sustainable economy, and wine grapes are the key component of this whole thing.”

Battany of UC Extension said putting limits on vineyard development would “create winners and losers.”

“Winners being those with established vineyards and access to water; losers being those with undeveloped land that they paid a high price for expecting to be able to plant a vineyard, but were later denied the ability to do so,” he said. “That will be a very difficult issue to deal with. The expectation of some future limit on vineyard plantings may be in part driving the current vineyard planting boom in the Paso Robles area.”

Lowell Zelinski, owner of Precision Ag, a vineyard management and consulting firm, believes the wine industry would survive, even if there were big changes in the law that forced growers to pump less groundwater or transition to dry farming.

“If you could only pump half of what you’ve been pumping, it wouldn’t cut yields in half, maybe 30 percent or so,” he said. “It would make a vineyard less profitable, but it wouldn’t put many out of business.”

The solution, say many on both sides of the issue, might call for obtaining supplemental water from an outside source such as Lake Nacimiento or the State Water Project, which could be costly and unreliable. Another action would be to create a local agency that would have the authority to manage groundwater resources.

Whatever the outcome, there will be no perfect fix, said Merrill, who has spent thousands of dollars digging new wells to support his own operation. Like many players on both sides of the issue, he would rather not see the matter adjudicated, which means that one aggrieved party has filed a lawsuit over water rights.

“We need water to be in the wine-grape business,” Merrill said. “But we’re all going to have to solve the problem, and we’re all going to have some discomfort. Water has been cheap and easy to find, and we took it all for granted. Now, we have to wake up, and each person has to understand the other person’s perspective, and build a consensus. We don’t want to wind up in a courtroom.”

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