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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mustangglp

Did they get permits for these ponds? I believe you have to have one to move more than ten yards of dirt!

Ten yards is not very much.


2STOP IGNORANCE

Yes they are permitted with the state and local agency. I looked it up all legal!!


rigrhonda

How many ponds are there on the property? How large are they and what is their capacity when filled? What is the state agency and the local (County?) agency responsible for issuing those permits?


R.Hodin

Currently, the county does not manage ground water, or rather, they manage it with permit fees.


Pay the fee, pump the water.


MaryMalone

Lord have Mercy! I agree with R.Hodin.


mustangglp

So there’s the problem why we’re they permitted $


Myself

Whiskey’s for drinking waters for fightin


I had to say it.


There isn’t going to be an easy way to iron out this mess, and its too late for the people blowing dust out their wells.


obispan

That is the plan. Make their wells go dry and buy up their land cheap, and , in addition, make your own water more valuable. Adjudication is the ONLY course of action for the little guys. Even if the county acts, and if so, weakly, the basin will continue to diminish. A “couple of wet years and it’s all good” applies only to shallow wells in porous soils dependent on nearby creeks and rivers, but the North County Tea Party supervisors will continue to chant this mantra. City of Paso had a population of 7,900 in 1977, rural houses were not McMansions with English gardens, and the land was in cattle and winter/spring dry farming, not grapes. Do the math. What Meacham and Arnold are really saying is were here, how we got here doesn’t matter, if you want to keep your land we’ll give you a loan to repay, if not move to town and try to get a job in the hospitality industry.


2STOP IGNORANCE

Drill deeper wells and the land is worth more, sell it and move to Oregon with the rest of the liberals.

Tithe 10% of your income to the Church and maybe God can help.


R.Hodin

How’s that 10% tithing working out for your well?


pasoparent5

Gee…with a selfish attitude like that, I hope you don’t have a WWJD sticker on the back of your 4 X 4.


racket

How big is the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin? How much water can it annually produce?


For illustrative purposes, let’s say the basin underlays 100,000 acres.


Fairness would indicate that a 1000 acre ranch within the basin is the beneficial owner of 1% of all water in the basin. (100,000 ÷ 100 = 1%).


Likewise, a 100 acre ranch would own a tenth of a percent of all water taken from the basin.


And on down the line.


If this is the case, then those on small lots crying for across-the-board cuts in water usage are going to find themselves pretty friggin’ thirsty.


But it’s never like that. Owners of postage-stamp lots cry for regulation of Everyone But Them. And they’ll probably get it, because there are a bunch of smaller owners in the basin, and fewer large owners. Tyranny of the Majority again and again and again.


racket

Want some whine with that?


R.Hodin

No thanks, you’ve already done a stellar job on that front.


Pelican1

Why do seem to ALWAYS wait until there is a crisis at hand before we act responsibly? Decades of seemingly unabated build-out and dry farming converted to viticulture clearly in the absence of any kind of strategic planning for our future.

Why do we insist on being reactionists rather than activists? Natural resource sustainability, whether non renewable or not, will NEVER happen as long we view our future through myopic eyes.


MaryMalone

Government officials have become accustomed to bu**-s*itting their constituents into thinking the officials are actually doing something about the problem when, in reality, the officials will just pass the problem on to the next bunch of supervisors who are elected.


Water rationing is NOT popular…not to businesses or residents. Supervisors and city council members can be, and have been, voted out of office for stances on water issues.


jimmy_me

The vineyards have deep pockets, but you can fight back: hit them where it counts. Boycott wine produced by vineyards who are causing the problems. Stop attending local wine-based festivals. Don’t go on local wine tours.


doggin

Never happen Jimmy _me. The wine consuming crowd is far to self righetous to even consider such bodily deprivation. Besides, think of all the revenue lost not having the likes of wine waves and wankers, the Paso Piss ant carnival and others. Id like a single individual who is on the side of these water sucking wastes of land to provide one legitimate reason why its acceptable to rape the aquifer running families out of water where their forced to truck it in. No showers, no bath for children, no landscape, nada, God forbid there’s a fire at one of these residences.

Profits are NOT and acceptable response because it only proves one motive..greed and the, “I don’t give a shit about you” attitude way to many operating in this county possess. Selective hypocrisy runs rampant in SLO Co and it makes me wanna puke. Wheres the Glassy Wing when ya need them ;)


R.Hodin

Getting roaring drunk and hot-wiring a D9 sounds much more entertaining.


heybobareebob

Hayduke lives!!!


Slowerfaster

Water is an ultimate resource.


Three minutes without breathable air: you die.

Three hours without shelter from exposure: you die.

Three days without water: you die.

30 days without food: you die.


Debbie Arnold’s ‘solution’ is a debt-financed bigger band-aid for a severed artery ? That’s more ‘blaming the victim(s)’ and charging them for the privilege.


It’s easy enough to look back and find when water tables began dropping. Any subsequent new developments from that date MUST be retroactively included as subject to current and future requirements.


This reminds me of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.


godislanguage

I would think building Ag ponds is a responsible way land owner have to mitigate water shortages.


….those folks in Atascadero have the cheapest water thanks to AMWC where all the property owners are shareholders…you would think it’s a good model for the county can follow, creating a district, which manages water table data, periodic surveys, and makes proposals for capital improvements to capture and retain Salinas River and tributary storm water.


R.Hodin

An Ag pond is an inefficient water bank. It’s an evaporation pond. It’s only purpose is to provide an reliable access to a large amount of water which can be pumped quickly, such as for frost protection. It has nothing to do with shortages, though keeping them filled will definitely contribute to depletion of the water table. They are an industrial Ag tool.


2STOP IGNORANCE

What is the evaporation rate per day per year on a lined AG pond?? Do you know if so please tell??


It may be very surprising to you how little it is.


R.Hodin

It’s much more than a water tank, that much I’m sure of.


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penman_equation


Energy inputs: sun, wind

Energy output: water vapor out, heat to adjacent soils


If the humidity is high enough, and the air temperature low enough, and no sunlight, then sure, the level of evaporation would be very low, or nil at dew point.


MaryMalone

It depends on the size of the pond and the weather.


Engineering.com has the equation: http://tinyurl.com/mbz9lqt


MaryMalone

Open water ponds in dry areas, such as Paso Robles, lose a lot of water every day from evaporation.


In addition, the ponds are a clear demonstration of the gluttonous attitude of the vineyard owners…”I got mine, who cares about you.”


2STOP IGNORANCE

Take them out. Build solar farms!!! Green and drought tolerant, That still wont help the wells that are dry!!


Bottom line is get your facts straight and quit using so much water, farm with proper practices and the


water will be good for years to come.