The saying goes: "Food grows where water flows." But soon, growers might be saying, "Where water flows, government grows."

Many changes regarding how wine grape growers can exercise their water use rights loom on the horizon. Wine grape growers haven't been drastically impacted by water regulations in the past; however, in a few weeks, proposed changes to the Ag Regulatory Program could change this.

On March 17, 2011, the day after the Central Coast VINE Symposium, the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) will hear the latest staff recommendations and potentially adopt those recommendations.  Growers will have a chance to hear the latest update on the proposed changes from ag water rights specialist, Kay Mercer at the Central Coast VINE Symposium, March 15-16, 2011 at the Paso Robles Event Center in Paso Robles, Calif.

Mercer, president of KMI, Inc. is the former executive director of the Central Coast Agricultural Water Quality Coalition. She has spent the last six years working on agriculture water quality issues.  At VINE, she will summarize the latest staff recommendations to be released next week, and give growers an overview of what lies ahead. According to Mercer, the time for growers to get involved is now.

"Growers need to be involved earlier," Mercer said. "Once it is adopted, you cannot suggest changes. They [growers] have a tendency to wait until they know the immediate impacts to their farms and by then it's too late.  Agriculture needs to have people at the table involved in drafting these policies. It's important that growers individually or through their associations be tracking these things and providing comment."

Arming wine grape growers with information and preparing them to make comment at the March 17 hearing of the RWQCB is one of the reasons VINE meeting director, Lowell Zelinski put this topic on the agenda. He also included it because he's concerned that wine grape growers have been lulled into a false sense of security based on the way the previous ag waiver was implemented.

"Wine grape growers typically have been the least impacted farmers on the Central Coast," Zelinski said. "But this could all change if the board adopts the new staff recommendations."

Far-reaching proposal

According to Zelinski, the most far-reaching proposal would be the requirement that farmers - including wine grape growers — document and justify their use of irrigation water and fertilizer. They could also be fined up to thousands of dollars per day for failure to comply.

Zelinski is a soil-plant-water relations specialist, and is also intimately involved in the water regulatory process.  He currently serves on the County of San Luis Obispo Water Resources Advisory Committee as well as the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance water committee.

The new ag order has been a long-time coming. The original ag order — commonly referred to as the "Ag Waiver" was adopted in 2003. It expired in 2008 and the termination date has been extended numerous times. Staff has prepared two proposals and the industry responded in November 2010 with the Ag Alternative Proposal. In early February 2011, the RWQCB rejected the staff's most recent proposal and directed them to revise and resubmit them by February 28, 2011. Mercer's presentation will summarize the latest proposal and give wine grape growers a chance to know what's going on before the adoption hearing takes place.

The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance (PRWCA) has been actively involved in the Ag Regulatory Program process and participated in the development of the Ag Alternative Proposal. In addition to regional issues, there are also a variety of local issues unique to each area that may impact wine grape growers. PRWCA governmental affairs coordinator Lisa Bodrogi will also speak at VINE and discuss how various local issues may impact the viticulture industry.

To register for VINE or for more information, call (805) 434-2772 or visit www.vinesymposium.com.