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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standup

Screwed e like the Resnicks. Boycott All Justin wines for a start. We don’ need neighbors like them around here. Also boycott Fiji weather which they also produce.


Lynn

We are talking Paso Robles here not SLO. Also, talking about people’s immediate need for wells……


Jorge Estrada

While everyone is pointing fingers at each others pond, SLO has 23,000 acre-feet of the same water already impounded and is signed up for another 23,000 for a total of 46,000 acre-feet. Does anybody see the big hole in this debate? This hole will drain onto the Dalidio project and others yet the talk is all about regulating our challenge to their taking.


As a County Gov, the best immediate short term fix would be to just fill the needy storage tanks, for those who have proof of a Certificate of Completion Report, for their dry well and let the river flow from the Salinas Dam into the basin.. Atleast this recharge will serve as viable data to measure the impact the Salinas River has on this so called Basin. NOW is a good time for this, real time, test.


This may show cause for SLO’s application for 46,000 acre-feet to never be upgraded to a license.


Rambunctious

The city of San Luis Obispo should never have been allowed to steal water from up north. They should have been mandated to hook up to state water when they had the chance…


MaryMalone

The same can be said for other areas, as well. Nipomo CSD is one of them. Twice NCSD brought State Water up for vote and twice the people voted it down, believing less water meant less development.


Of course, less water didn’t mean less development, as the NCSD board of directors just kept issuing water permits, even when it was clear the groundwater basin was in overdraft.


Now it is too late for Nipomo, and probably other cities and districts in the same predicament, to get on the State Water system.


Jorge Estrada

SLO does not have their license yet for the 46,000 acre feet and if there is a REAL water emergency the 23,000 acre-feet, currently retainable, behind the Salinas Dam should be allowed to flow.


The Paso Ground Water Basin does not incllude this water storage yet the permit for this storage has a live stream requirement that extends to Paso Robles. Yes, it is just that rediculous. Everyone within the Salinas water shed should work together and demand stopping the flow to SLO, fighting each other will not remedy the fact that SLO is taking your water rights.


Shifting the water rights to the cities is a SMART GROWTH requirement and easily done with a dash of apathy or as the courts may say, negligent property owners.


danika

Take Fred Strong’s advice from one of last year’s CC meetings:


“Break off an iceberg and float it down to Paso”.


Gotta shake your head..


pasoparent5

Don’t forget Mr. Strong’s strong affinity for justifying elaborate projects (even though the city can’t afford to maintain any of them) by saying, “Hey! We got grant money! We’re using grant money so it’s OK.”


If Fred Strong can find a federally-subsidized Iceberg Relocation grant, he’ll do it for sure. Then Paso’s leaders can keep trudging ahead with Beechwood/Oleson, Uptown Project and expanding those wineries…even though we have a severe water shortage. According to Mr. Strong, an iceberg will solve our woes. :)


R.Hodin

Strong could even grow some iceberg lettuce!


tomsquawk

“Any real estate people on here that can answer that question without lying for their own best interest?” we’ll see


Tammy

I’d love be a fly on the wall listening to the sell.


tomsquawk

gotta be right up there with bond salesmen


Tammy

What I don’t read is what this water issue and lack there of is having on agricultural land values in the

region. Any real estate people on here that can answer that question without lying for their own best interest?


topper01

“Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting over.” Mark Twain


2STOP IGNORANCE

I would like to hear a little about what take people have on the mineral rights and how it would be fair and equitable to enforce quantities? Should a 1 acre parcel have the same water allotment of someone who owns 1000 acres ect? Should it be illegal to sell water from your well to others ? Oh ya the City already does that? and other private water Co such as the Spanish Lakes Development ECT.


obispan

The Resnicks are neither “friends” or “neighbors”.


R.Hodin

That’s pretty harsh. I’ll bet they have a few in Beverly Hills.


WiserGuy

More like Bel Air.


rigrhonda

Big difference, eh?