Ken Currell gazed forlornly at vegetation surrounding the five-acre ranch he and his wife, Lynn, operate on the southeastern edge of Paso Robles, and responded to a visitor’s comments about the property’s beauty: “It was,” he said.
Currell’s well, which had been delivering fresh water for decades, went dry in June. In the meantime, larger landowners in the area are dipping ever deeper into a shrinking aquifer with bigger and bigger pipelines, constructing gargantuan reservoirs and filling them to the brim.
Hardham Ranch reservoir under construction.
On this day Currell wrote a check for delivery of 2,750 gallons of water from a truck to partially refill his tank, and was fielding phone calls from other private water purveyors.
It’s a matter of survival now, Currell said.
The Currels are part of a growing cadre of landowners and small ranchers and agriculturists in the North County who are suddenly finding their heretofore-dependable water sources going dry in the face of relentless new demand, vineyard development and a complete lack of regulation.
While Currell doggedly tried to maintain his shrinking water supply, county supervisors were meeting in San Luis Obispo to consider an emergency ordinance to deal with what many people are calling a critical water shortage.
Currell didn’t attend the standing-room-only meeting.
“I’m afraid I’d lose my temper,” he said.
Frayed nerves and outright anger punctuate emotions in the North County these days. Currell believes one of the major reasons for the area’s water woes sits right across the road from his parched land: the 747-acre Hardham Ranch.
Since the early 1900s, the Hardham Ranch had been used for dry farming and cattle grazing. But early last year, following the death of matriarch Clare Hardham, the property was sold to Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick.
The Resnicks own one of the world’s most expansive agricultural empires, Paramount Farms, and their holding company Roll International includes FijiWater, Justin Winery, and a host of other entities.
The Resnicks also are key players in a controversial water development project in the Central Valley called the Kern Water Bank. Resnick’s Paramount Farms is partnering with several other large property owners to develop the privately-held water bank.
A multi-pronged lawsuit has been launched by opponents to the water bank, who contend the state’s Department of Water Resources has created a situation which constitutes a gift of public resources and funds.
Today, the Hardham Ranch is undergoing a complete transformation en route to becoming one of the biggest vineyards in an area of huge vineyards as nearly every square inch of the property is being irrigated and planted. Large-capacity pipes stretch end-to-end for literally miles as workers scramble to connect and bury them.
And two large reservoirs, said to hold a total of 184 acre feet of water (or 60 million gallons) have been dug, both lined with thick plastic sheeting to prevent seepage.
A reporter drove onto the property twice recently, seeking a tour and an interview with ranch officials.
A man who identified himself as Jorge, the ranch manager, said the request was being considered, and then asked the reporter to leave the premises. A large steel gate clanged closed as the visitor retreated.
Several neighbors of the ranch who have tried to have a look at the development have been sternly rebuffed.
“They don’t want people knowing what’s going on,” said one neighbor, Daniella Sapriel. “The reservoirs created to serve the new vineyards are tucked away from sight; berms make them invisible from the road.”
Sapriel’s well went dry in mid-June, and she has been forced to dig it deeper.
“The month before, our neighbors to the south went dry,” Sapriel wrote in a July letter to county supervisors. “We ran a hose over to water their horses. Now they are running a line of hoses to our property to keep our landscaping from dying while we wait for our new well to be completed.”
Sapriel was one of dozens of people who commented to supervisors who now are considering the emergency ordinance.
In comments she had written earlier, Sapriel said the North County is already in crisis:
“It has already hit, although the shock waves may not yet have reached all areas. Unless our elected officials and our wine industry leaders stop mouthing platitudes and immediately commit to taking whatever emergency measures are available — including limiting the size of new ag wells and reservoirs, and voluntary moratoriums on new plantings that require increasing water use — it will be too late to stop the economic domino effect of a dwindling aquifer.”
Sapriel’s comments were greeted by applause from the packed supervisors’ chambers, but her sentiment was not shared by others in the sharply-divided crowd.
Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district covers a large portion of the Paso Robles aquifer, said he was concerned about angry divisions being created by the water shortage, which has pitted large owners of vineyards and row crops and property rights advocates against smaller well-water-supplied business owners and individual residences.
Mecham flew over the Hardham Ranch several weeks ago “to try to see what is taking place there.”
“It’s pretty sizable,” he said.
In some regions, dry wells are rendering properties valueless; some owners have already abandoned their dried-up land.
Supervisors voted Tuesday to bring a draft emergency ordinance forward on August 27. Such an ordinance could place an immediate moratorium on new development while a longer-term solution to the shrinking aquifer is sought.
Supervisor Debbie Arnold, expressing reluctance to move toward wide-ranging sanctions, said she believes many people need a short-term answer to their water needs in the form of financial aid for deepening wells.
Ken Currell is not optimistic that a solution will come soon enough to save his property.
“Most of what is being talked about now are low-interest loans to dig deeper,” he said. “I’m not sure I can afford such a loan now.”
Sapriel said loans probably is not a saving answer.
“Solutions previously floated, including low-interest loans, reduced fees, and ‘new water’ sources and infrastructure, are not realistic,” she told supervisors. “Who wants more debt, low-interest or otherwise, added to already heavy mortgage obligations burdening property values… values that were finally recovering?”
No matter what supervisors decide later this month, there will be no impact on the water mining now taking place on the Hardham Ranch and elsewhere. Properties with development already permitted — “in the pipeline” — will be exempted from any new ordinance.