|Paso Robles water basin in decline, darkest colors indicating a drop of 70 feet over 15 years|
If you have lived in California for any length of time, the chances are you've been involved in, or at least heard something pertaining to the issue of water rights. Water is scarce in the middle-to-lower portion of our state, and like any scarce natural resource (think oil!) it's often a topic of contention.
As rural residents, we were concerned when we heard about well water levels dropping in our area. The couple who owns the land kitty-corner to us has had their well go dry, as have several other neighbors. So far our faucets have remained running, and everyone is hoping for a wet winter. But our neighbors with the shallow well (a scant 360 feet) will have to dig deeper -- probably to eight hundred feet or so -- which will cost them about $35,000 once all is said and done. That's a huge expense. Our own well sits at about 600 feet, so we're probably good for awhile. But not forever, at the rate the water table is dropping. Time to start saving for that big, wet $35,000 investment. Yikes.
The other side of the equation is an important one, and it's where the fighting begins: Recently the corporate wine world has discovered our area and has begun buying up land and buying out quite a few of the small, family-owned wineries, in order to plant as many acres of grapes as possible. Where once our hillsides used to be mainly oaks and coastal scrub dotted with a few wineries here and there, we now have seas and seas of brand new, rippling green vineyards, beautiful to behold, but oh, so thirsty.
So the water table has been steadily dropping and our local government has been at loggerheads at what to do about it. So have families. Big Ag's brother works in those big, new vineyards, providing equipment and supplies. But Big Ag and I are rural homeowners, concerned with dropping residential well levels and the over-expansion of the grape plantings. And so we find ourselves on opposite sides of the table on this issue.
So there have been arguments, accusations and hurt feelings. Just like every California family before us, going all the way back to when this area belonged to Spain. If we're going to fight, we're going to fight about water.
As long as there have been farms and ranches here and above them, in those almost-always blue skies, the limited rainfall that comes with our Mediterranean climate, there have been water wars, against the government and sometimes pitting families against families.
Last night the Board of Supervisors declared a "water emergency," putting a hold on new plantings and development. We will see where that gets us. Hopefully it is not too late to put the brakes on all the water use, and allow the water basin to recover.