California in Overdraft

Leticia Espinoza, right, and Maria Ortega prune grapevines at a vineyard in Templeton, Calif. Groundwater levels have declined in the area as the number of vineyards has grown. Image by Steve Elfers. California, 2015.

Laurie Gage carries hay to feed the horses at her farm in Paso Robles. She says several neighbors have seen their wells go dry, and she worries that if groundwater levels keep declining, "we could be in trouble soon." Image by Ian James. California, 2015.

Wine grapes hang on the vines at Pomar Junction Vineyard and Winery in Templeton, Calif. Owner Dana Merrill said the water table in the area has declined about 70 feet in the past 10 years. He supports a proposal to create a water district that would manage groundwater in the Paso Robles area. Image by Ian James. California, 2015.

PASO ROBLES, California – Two decades ago, the rolling hills of Paso Robles were mostly covered with golden grass and oak trees. Now the hills and valleys are blanketed with more than 32,000 acres of grapevines.

Surging demand for wine has brought an explosion of vineyards, and along with it heavy pumping of groundwater. With the water table dropping, many people have had to cope as their taps have sputtered and their wells have gone dry.

Drilling a new well can cost $30,000 or more, and for Juan Gavilanes and his family, that’s out of reach. Instead, they’re relying on a neighbor who lets them use his well, and they bring water to their house through a hose.

Standing in his parched yard, Gavilanes said life has changed radically. He let his vegetable garden die. His family uses a coin laundry. They take quick showers and eat on paper plates. He said it’s quite clear where their water has gone and why their well is empty.

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