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SLO County, wineries sued over well permits 

A California water watchdog is suing San Luis Obispo County, two vineyard and winery operations, and one land holding company over recently approved well permits.

The California Water Impact Network (C-WIN), a Santa Barbara-based group that advocates for equitable and environmentally sensitive water use across California, filed the lawsuit on July 28. 

The lawsuit argues that well permit applications should be subject to the California Water Quality Act (CEQA) rather than the standard, more routine ministerial approval process.

Carolee Krieger, C-WIN’s executive director, told New Times that in light of California’s record setting drought, where groundwater is being increasingly relied on to compensate for scant rain-fall and limited surface water, the approval of deep wells should receive more scrutiny

While only three particular wells are named, she said they are representative of a large problem.

“We’re hoping that the court is looking at this and looking at the potential harm and will look at the rubber stamping of all of the permits,” Krieger said.

Specifically, the suit called out recently approved permits for deep wells. According to the applications, those permits are for a 915-foot deep well at Justin Vineyards and Winery LLC’s original property at 11680 Chimney Rock Road; a 1,600-foot deep well at 7377 Adelaida Road on a property recently purchased by Paso Robles Vineyard Inc. (Vina Robles); and a 1,000-foot deep well on a property owned by the Bakersfield-based Lapis Land Company LLC.

Justin Vineyards’ and Vina Robles’ properties are west of Paso Robles and Lapis Land Company’s property is in the Cuyama Valley east of Santa Maria.

While none of those well sites are in the stressed Paso Robles Groundwater Basin—which has been the epicenter of water battles in SLO County for the last few years—Krieger referenced the basin as an example of where deep wells can have devastating consequences.

“I don’t want to stop any ranch or any ranch owners from drilling a well. What I’m concerned about are the corporate wells, if you will—the deep wells,” she said. “I know what can happen to the surrounding areas when these big landowners come in and start pumping. This is about the health of everybody, and that’s why it’s important to do a CEQA review. It might not be a lot for one well, but you have to look at the whole picture.”

The California Legislature passed a monumental package of laws called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 that will eventually require a groundwater management agency and plan for seriously stressed basins, including the Paso basin and the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin. But key requirements of those laws won’t be in full force for a few more years, and Krieger said a stop-gap measure is needed between those new requirements and current laws that often amount to a “hands off” policy in regulating groundwater in California.

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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