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In the Vines is a five-part series exploring wine in Paso Robles. Through sound-rich feature reporting, KCBX's Benjamin Purper examines the positives and negatives of the city's transformation into a wine town, and what the future might hold for this emerging wine country.

In the Vines: How drought and climate change threaten the Paso Robles wine industry's future

Niner wine
Flickr / Dirk DBQ
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Some wineries like Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles have installed drought-resistant landscaping to reduce their reliance on irrigation.

The water crisis in the American West is made worse every year by climate change and drought, posing an existential threat to agricultural economies across the region. Smaller cities and towns like those on the Central Coast are often the most vulnerable and hardest-hit, forcing these areas to adapt to more heat and less rain.

That was apparent in July of last year, when Governor Gavin Newsom visited Lopez Lake in South San Luis Obispo County. He thanked Californians for stepping up their water conservation efforts, but said it wasn’t enough.

“Conditions are such that they continue to devolve and as a consequence today, we are doing what we had signaled was likely to happen," Newsom said.

That day, Newsom added nine more counties — including all of the Central Coast — to his list of counties under a drought emergency proclamation.

He said even as water conservation methods are improving all the time, especially in California, the climate is changing too rapidly to keep up.

“​​Those are the effects of climate change. It's here. It's real, it's human-induced and it's happening," he said.

That was last summer, and since then, the problem has only gotten worse. Newsom went on to add every California county to that drought emergency list, and water levels at Lopez Lake itself continue to decline, revealing dry, cracked earth underneath.

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SLO County Parks and Recreation
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Lopez Lake at 33 percent in August 2021.

Lakes aren’t the only water source in jeopardy, as groundwater basins are also being heavily depleted as the Western drought prepares to enter its fourth year. California reports that about 64% of the state’s wells are at below-normal water levels, and that more than 1,200 wells have gone completely dry so far this year.

For Paso Robles, it’s a situation that could have disastrous effects on the area’s wine-based economy, according to Cal Poly agribusiness professor Lynn Hamilton.

“It's something that's going to ripple through the entire community, not just the people who are landowners growing the grapes," Hamilton said.

Hamilton was part of a team of researchers who studied the challenges facing the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, which has been heavily over-pumped for years now — mostly through irrigating its more than 40,000 acres of vineyards.

The most recent data shows that in 2021, about 82,000 acre-feet of water was extracted from the basin, compared to the roughly 62,000 acre-feet limit that researchers say should be the maximum sustainable limit.

“The worst case scenario in our studies showed an economic loss of $450 million," Hamilton said of a study she co-wrote and researched showing what water cutbacks could do to Paso Robles’ economy.

While $450 million would be a huge loss for the area, she said even a lower water reduction could still result in more than thousands of lost jobs in a city of a little more than 30,000 people.

“That's looking at the impacts at every level, the agricultural impact, the winery impact but also those tertiary impacts of what happens when essentially the underpinnings of this industry start to crumble, with the wine grapes drying up," she said.

For Hamilton, the extended drought is a wake-up call for the Paso Robles wine industry.

“The attitude here seems to be, until recently, that we're just another just a rainy season away from being saved. Like, it will all just be good if we just get more rain. I think people are now starting to realize that's not true any longer," Hamilton said.

Matt Turrentine is a board member on the Paso Basin Cooperative Committee, which is made up of the four agencies charged with overseeing the area's groundwater sustainability plans.

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San Luis Obispo County
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Four different groundwater sustainability agencies oversee the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.

The agencies recently submitted a plan to the state that will likely bring cutbacks in how much water growers can pump from the basin in Paso Robles, among other requirements and regulations meant to help restore groundwater levels.

Turrentine is optimistic not only about this plan, but also funding coming to the area, like a $7.6 million grant from the state for infrastructure, testing and other investments in the Paso Basin.

“It’d be great to say, there will never be another well that goes dry. But that's not realistic, nor is that what the law calls for," Turrentine said. "But [instead], what's the definition of sustainability that we're shooting for, and how are we making sure that all stakeholders are adequately and reasonably protected?”

Though agriculture is doing the vast majority of groundwater pumping, officials say the city itself is water-secure, and that it relies less and less on the groundwater basin every year. Officials say they have even factored future growth into their planning, and that there should not be any water shortages within city limits in that plan.

But while the faucets will keep running, the wine industry is almost sure to see cutbacks in the amount of water they can use.

The state's Sustainable Groundwater Management Act mandates groundwater basins like Paso Robles’ reach water sustainability by 2040 — but Turrentine hopes and expects that will happen sooner. Ultimately, he calls the groundwater situation here a “solvable problem.”

“There's lots of basins elsewhere in California and lots of water systems all around the West where that's not true, where there aren't solvable problems," he said.

But there’s still concern from local agriculture about the impact of further water regulation on their livelihood.

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SLO County
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Brent Burchett is the executive director of the SLO County Farm Bureau, which represents these interests.

He said he hopes the local water agencies and the state will take into account the ripple effects further regulation and water cutbacks would have on not just agriculture, but the entire Paso Robles community.

“We're providing public good, we're providing jobs, we're providing property tax values that fund our schools," Burchett said. "So we talk about private industry, a farmer that has grapes or winery that's making wine — their impact is beyond just the revenue that they bring themselves."

Burchett said the wine industry is relatively lucky in that wine grapes take a lot less water than many other crops grown in California, like almonds or alfalfa.

Though drought and climate change make the water situation in California more dire every year, he said agriculture — including Paso Robles grape-growers — are rising to the task.

“California is a leader in water sustainability, and I think that's the story that gets lost here. We're setting standards that other states and other countries are adopting and looking to us for leadership," Burchett said.

Next week, in the final installment of the series, we’ll hear about some of the innovations winemakers are experimenting with in Paso Robles to try to sustain a healthy environment and industry for future generations.

That’s next time on “In the Vines.”

This piece was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Benjamin Purper came to KCBX in May of 2021 from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.