While the world clamors for more Paso Robles wine, rural residents like Denise Smith yearn for something far more precious: local water.
The retired teacher is one of dozens of homeowners in parched northern San Luis Obispo County whose wells have run dry.
Unable to afford a deeper well at a cost of $30,000, she trucks in water every few weeks. Meals are eaten on paper plates. Showers last 45 seconds. Toilets are seldom flushed.
Where did the water go? Smith and other residents say it’s flowing freely into the area’s signature industry -- wine.
No longer a regional secret, the Paso Robles appellation is the fancy of wine lovers near and far. Verdant vineyards now dominate the golden pastoral landscape, many with tasting rooms that contribute to a $1.2-billion local tourism industry.
This surge in popularity has caused wine grape acreage in the county to more than triple in 15 years to 36,550 acres -- and there are estimates of up to 8,000 acres more being prepared. With little to no rain on much of that land, drip irrigation is widespread.
That’s strained the area’s primary source of water, an ancient aquifer that covers 790 square miles and is large enough to safely support annual demand of 97,700 acre-feet of water -- the equivalent of 50,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
But demand for basin water has exceeded that safe yield. The water level has sunk 70 feet or more since 1997 in some parts -- the product of persistent drought and largely unchecked agricultural and urban growth. California and Texas are the only two states that allow landowners unlimited access to groundwater.
More than two-thirds of basin water usage is for farming, the overwhelming majority of which is vineyards, according to the latest study.
The dispute over the basin is now roiling this idyllic country community, where living among the vineyards has long been central to its allure.
Activist residents have mobilized, calling for water conservation and equitable use of the basin. Many scoff at new arrivals and their penchant for planting grapes.
“There’s too many doctors and lawyers moving in here and putting in their Chateau Cashflow,” said Zan Overturf, owner of a Paso Robles plant nursery who has seen local business dry up because of the water shortage.
Battle lines have been drawn.
On one side are wine producers, who feel besieged and undeserving of all the blame. On the other are rural residents, who worry over their housing values and ask how soon before their faucets cough dust?
In normally placid Paso Robles, some residents are privately boycotting the offending wineries. One homeowner was shocked to find his “Save Our Wells!” bumper sticker torn off his car.
“We used to think we were so lucky to live here,” said Jan Seals, 60, a Bay Area tech-industry transplant whose well water dropped 70 feet in the decade she and her husband have lived outside Paso Robles. “Now we’ve got two choices: drill another well or put our house on the market. But I wouldn’t buy our house given the situation with the basin.”
Under growing pressure, county supervisors voted Tuesday to cap the current level of pumping from the basin, a strategy to buy time until a long-term solution can be found.
Wine growers are backing a proposal to form a water district and acquire supplemental water from the California State Water Project to the east and Lake Nacimiento to the west.
Critics say that water isn’t enough and warn that construction of pipelines could take years and cost tens of millions of dollars. They also fear that a water district’s board would be stacked with wine producers representing the estimated 20,000 rural residents living over the basin.
Without an agreement, the dispute could land in court, with the water basin adjudicated. That’s when a judge appoints a water master to determine how to share an aquifer and has happened 22 times in California, including cases in the Santa Maria Valley and Monterey County.
“I feel vilified. We’re trying to solve the problem,” said Jerry Reaugh, a grape grower leading an alliance to create a water district. “We’re the only people who showed up at the table that have positive solutions. The other solutions are ‘You’ve got to stop, you’ve got to stop, you’ve got to stop.’”
Given the growing demand for wine, stopping or even slowing down will be exceedingly difficult.
Prices for grapes have risen steadily since 2011 in response to limited supplies and an improving economy. California grapes as a whole rose in value from $592 a ton in 2011 to $734 a ton in 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Things have been even better in Paso Robles, which has given Napa Valley a run for its money in recent years. Among the biggest coups: Wine Spectator named Saxum, a red grape blend from the boutique winery James Berry Vineyard, the wine of the year in 2010.
The best cabernet grapes, the dominant varietal on the warmer west side of Paso Robles, can now sell for up to $2,000 a ton, Reaugh said.
That’s enormously beneficial for the region’s growers, half of whom don’t have wineries and choose to sell their grapes to established local brands such as J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines and Justin Vineyards & Winery, which have expanded aggressively to meet demand.
Many of those leading brands have established conservation plans on their vineyards that have reduced water usage over the years.
Growing grapes is not especially water-intensive. The fruit requires one-third to one-quarter less water than alfalfa or sugar beets, which used to be among the area’s leading agricultural products.
“Compared to other irrigated crops, wine [grapes] use less water than most other things out there,” said Mark Battany, a viticulture farm advisor with UC Cooperative Extension who is studying vineyard water use around Paso Robles.
“But no matter how efficient a crop is, it won’t matter if you’re pumping more water than what’s available,” he says.
To many established families in the region, wine has helped preserve a way of life that has lasted generations.
Cindy Steinbeck’s family arrived in 1884, and through the decades, subsisted on raising cattle and growing wheat and barley. When that became unprofitable in the 1970s, the family had to consider selling its land.
But a partnership growing grapes for an established winemaker brought the business back from the brink.
The launch of the family’s own wine label several years ago has also helped.
Steinbeck, 52, hopes lawmakers ultimately arrive at a solution to the basin problem. But she rankles at the perception that all winemakers use water wastefully. Not with so much at stake, she says. After all, the family is prepared to eventually hand over control of the business to her 27-year-old son, Ryan.
“Why would we overuse a resource we need for the next generation?” she said.