August 3, 2016 – The California Water Impact Network (C-WIN) has filed a lawsuit against San Luis Obispo County for issuing three well-drilling permits without requiring the reviews stipulated by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The suit addresses drilling permits granted in April and June to Justin Vineyards and Winery, Lapis Land Company LLC and Paso Robles Vineyards. The permits, issued under a claimed “ministerial” exemption to CEQA, allow the three companies to pump groundwater from the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin in quantities that are “sufficient” to irrigate commercial vineyards. The lawsuit asserts the permits were in fact discretionary approvals that required analysis and mitigation of their environmental impacts under CEQA, including impacts on the Basin.

“CEQA is explicit that large discretionary projects like this, projects that will have a significant negative impact on natural resources, must be subject to full environmental review,” said Carolee Krieger, the executive director of C-WIN.

Krieger notes that the three wineries are large corporate enterprises that wield considerable clout in the county and state.

“Justin Winery, for example, is owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, the Central Valley’s largest pistachio and pomegranate growers.  The Resnicks control a 58% share of the Kern Water Bank in neighboring Kern County which has greatly harmed it’s surrounding neighbors’ wells by taking too much groundwater forcing their neighbors to litigate,” says Krieger. “Clearly, these ‘ministerial’ decisions must not be allowed to stand. The County has a choice; to treat these well permits as “discretionary” and subject to CEQA review or as “ministerial” and not subject to anything but a rubber stamp.  In large projects like this, with the potential for significant harm, it is essential to have CEQA review.”

Krieger notes that the exemptions already have resulted in significant environmental degradation.

“Shortly after the permit was issued, Justin’s managers clear-cut hundreds of protected oaks for a reservoir that will be used in conjunction with the new well,” said Krieger. “They apparently view the permit as carte blanche to do whatever they please, environmental laws and public trust resources be damned.  And this is just the beginning. Once the wells are pumping full-bore for the new vineyards, we’re likely to see significant impacts on the already precarious Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.”