Water crisis dividing friends, neighbors

August 7, 2013

By DANIEL BLACKBURN

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.

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.

pasopipe

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.


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Vallybear

It seems that too many of the areas in this County (SLO) have fallen victim to the same illness that has affected Paso Robles – Greed. The VIP’s in Paso (and the Tribune) have proudly announced every new winery that has opened in north County. Never mentioned the water that is being sucked up.

Pismo Beach and City of SLO are dying to build more houses to further suck up their water. Today a developer in Cayucos has announced that building many new houses there will be no problem.


Los Osos is under a water conservation program which seems to be failing (my neighbor continues to water her extensive lawn every other day just like usual):Before each resident can be connected to the sewer (eventually it will get here), the household must have all kinds of ‘low flow’ stuff.

Why is any body trying to conserve water? So that the wealthier among us can gobble it up???


jimmy_me

Great post. People in Los Osos should pay attention as they will soon be faced with the same problem once the sewer goes online. Here’s how it will happen; the sewer goes online, the building moratorium is lifted, the ground water dries up, the residents then pay a bajillion more dollars to import state water. It boils down to rich and powerful controlling everything, particular the decision making. The rich don’t feel it; everyone else is faced with a lower standard of living.


MaryMalone

I doubt Los Osos can now sign up for State Water. The State Water Project is already over-committed. The SWP has already said, flat out, that it will never in the future be able to deliver more than 50% of the water already contracted.


What Los Osos will have to do is what NCSD has had to do…pay for their lack of adequate planning for the future by buying water at a premium price.


Then, of course, there is the upgrading of the infrastructure to be able to access the purchased water…


pasovino

Philipponi will do it….He’s really lookin out for his friends and neighbors….He’s on the board of Farm Credit West too-Central Valleys largest corporate Ag Govt Subsidizer….”low interest loans even! That was RICH!


tomsquawk

if the answer to the problem is to dig deeper wells, then the new kids on the block should pay for it. plain & simple. assess them


R.Hodin

Nobody’s saying the solution is to dig deeper wells.


R.Hodin

No one who is credible, that is.


tomsquawk

yep


pasowino

You’re absolutely correct. Drilling a deeper well is the same as asking your credit card company to raise your credit limit when you’ve reached your limit. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. We need to institute a cap and trade system to financially encourage conservation.


I think something along the lines of 0.25 acre feet of water per acre of land per year is a good start. So someone with a vineyard (which uses 1-acre foot per year per acre) would have to go onto the trade market and “purchase” the rights for 0.75 additional acre feet per acre from someone who is willing to sell all or part of their 0.25 acre feet.


rigrhonda

The history of California has always been about water. This is just the latest sad chapter. Unfortunately there are always those ready to push the limits, abuse the environment, ravage the land, and not give a damn about the communities or people they destroy. $$$ are the only thing, the end all and be all of their existence. So when they find a sleepy community in a rural county ripe for the picking, they pounce.


A pleasant drive through the Paso Robles countryside, out beyond the city limits to Creston Road & S. El Pomar Road ends up being staggering and disheartening. Massive Ag ponds are being constructed, vast rows of vines are being planted, enormous water pipes are being buried. The Paso Robles Groundwater Basin is in serious overdraft!!! Doesn’t that mean anything? Neighborhood wells nearby are going dry… and this is before they’ve even begun to suck water for all those vines, or to fill those enormous Ag ponds!


Wake up North County supervisors… get in a helicopter and fly over the area… the water bank has arrived! It’s no longer about garden hoses, or loans, or even “taking care” of homeowners. The big picture will be much more complicated and bleak if you cannot show some leadership and muster some political courage to curtail any more of this kind of agricultural abuse.


tomsquawk

What have they done to the earth?

What have they done to our fair sister?

Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her

Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn

And tied her with fences and dragged her down


Jim Morrison


MaryMalone

New Mexico is being turned into a dust bowl thanks to over-drafting of their water resources, inappropriate land-use practices, and unwillingness of elected officials to make the hard decisions necessary to stop the state’s march into dust-bowl status.


It can happen in our county just as easily, and for the same reasons.


A Dry and Desperate State (http://tinyurl.com/lm3s6ny)


R.Hodin

The Hardham heirs have left a lasting legacy in the Paso area, literally overnight.


I hope you enjoy your new-found wealth.


R.Hodin

Good to see CCN finally covering water over-drafting, which has been on the same upward trend for at least 3 decades. I know it’s not as sexy as Adam Hill’s emails, but there is no bigger issue in the county. No water = No work = No tax base


Providing low-interest loans is just another Socialism-for-the-corporations scheme, where the measurable and permanent damage by the big growers to the water basin is subsidized by the average taxpayer. Yes, the damage is permanent, to a degree.


We have learned that we cannot depend upon a “normal” winter rain cycle, so it is fool’s play to schedule any moratorium on the seasons. Rather, it should be tied to measured rainwater percolation into the PR water basin, and not on an overall average. It the “red area” of severe overdraft is going to be the extent of the moratorium, then recharge must be greater than demand for that geographical area.


Subscribing to non-existent State Water so just to avoid the discomfort of managing demand as Arnold proposes is sheer lunacy.


She needs to know her position is literally unsustainable.


MaryMalone

QUOTING R.HODIN: “It the “red area” of severe overdraft is going to be the extent of the moratorium, then recharge must be greater than demand for that geographical area.”


In reality, the red-zoned depression is not fenced off, and the “depression” of the GW level pulls water from other areas of the groundwater basin.


This is very similar to how the rapacious vineyard owners’ overdrafting of the GW basin under their land draws GW from areas which previously had much higher GW levels (therefore, dropping the level of the well needed to be drilled before a dependable water supply can be accessed).


Water is the biggest, most expensive challenge California (including our county) will face in the future. That Arnold thinks we can just address the red-zoned area of the GW basin because someone colored it red makes her look like she is uneducated and not fit to be county supervisor.


SLOBIRD

I strongly supported Debbie in her election but she is wrong on this and needs to step to the plate and protect the interest of the local taxpayers and their property. Providing a low interest loan is not the answer as these folks struggle and fight for their property. She needs to agree to a 90 day moratorium until winter rains come. If she does not vote for protection for our neighbors to the north, she worthless to us all. Take a plane ride over these properties Debbie, open your eyes and do the right thing, your are a rancher.


Come this fall, you can review the circumstances and creates lasting protection for everyone. I financially supported and voted for you because I thought you were an experienced problem solver, politically experienced, and a supporter of property rights and protection for local folks. Don’t become anotherJerry Lenthall, all talk no action and a one term supervisor.


R.Hodin

Jerry v2.0


You nailed it. Except you could have easily added Harry Ovitt and Katcho to the list of do-nothings.


MaryMalone

SLOBIRD, I agree with your dissatisfaction of Debbie Arnold (see my post at http://tinyurl.com/n5vfuu2), but disagree to the 90-day moratorium.


It will take several back-to-back years to address the over-draft (which is highly unlikely to occur since the West is predicted to have years more of a protracted drought, which may, in fact be what the status quo state of our climate), but if we do not bring consumption of the Paso GW basin into sustainable levels, then it is only a temporary fix, at best.


I think her delaying demands for more studies by the planning department show that Arnold is either woefully uneducated about water issues or woefully subservient to her campaign cronies.


Either way, she is not serving the best interests of the majority of the people of our county.


And Mechum…what a fool.


Mechum and Arnold are enjoying their brief interval of power, by using the bully-pulpit of needing supervisor votes for any GW plan to be passed.


In the meantime, they are both wasting time and resources when action towards sustainable use of the GW basin needs to started immediately.


R.Hodin

Arnold’s call for more studies is just parroting Mike Brown’s tactic of stalling until it rains, when he can stand there and say “Problem’s over, look—it’s raining!”


Brown is a carer bureaucrat and knows every trick in the book. Now his story is that we need a “map” with every dry well shown before any emergency action can be instituted. The data showing water basin depletion has been available, and is continually being updated. He feels he can ignore the reality to his and COLAB’s cronies benefit.


Show us your rain dance, Mike.


R.Hodin

The back story on the “map” is once the dry wells are mapped, Brown (and others) can say that no emergency action is necessary outside of that area (assuming it’s a cluster) or he can say there’s not enough data, or that those particular wells are too shallow, or any number of excuses not to impose a basin-wide management plan. It is a recipe for stalling.


He’s thinking beyond the emergency action, just like all the big players are. Sure, they’re making noise now, but this is just the beginning. Looking for excuses to maintain their control over their water pumping. The last thing they want is for the county to develop a water demand-management plan. They want to maintain that power. A water district of their (PRAAGS) own making.


MaryMalone

Maybe Paso and the County will pay Fugro to do another GW basin study like the one that was vigorously criticized by the subsequent peer review. You know, the water study that, despite all obvious evidence, said that the Paso GW basin had a virtually limitless amount of water.


Randy Sheila

Government assistance for drilling wells, would that be a new program with new liabilities?


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