We’ve opined on these pages before about water problems plaguing Paso Robles including drought and who has the rights to the water in the first place. Now, the region may be losing their rights to a huge ground water reservoir in the North County to eastern academics 3,000 miles away.
Harvard University, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, endowment arm has been quietly buying up land and the rights to water pumped from that ground for investment purposes. This isn’t the first time we heard about this, but it appears the Ivy League school has not lost steam in purchasing giant parcels and grabbing hold of the water pumped from said properties.
Harvard Management Company buying up the Central Coast
Roughly a year ago, reports surfaced Harvard Management Company was acquiring real estate on California’s Central Coast. Whether it was the stories about drought and how Paso Robles had this huge natural underground aquifer or perhaps the fact the region was crowned the world number one wine region, regardless, land was being gobbled up throughout the area. From Santa Barbara, to San Luis Obispo and Monterey Counties, mostly rural properties were being bought on a steady basis, on behalf of Harvard – though all entities involved, would not corroborate the information.
And from all indications, none of these acquisitions were great farming deals, meaning, there had to be an alternative reason for the purchases. Betting on the potentially liquid gold underneath the surface had to be the only logical reasoning behind these procurements.
The wine industry is in a boon of sorts in Paso Robles, and certainly the city is by most accounts, a company town in that viticulture has a hold on the region. There is little influence in the region by the behemoth population centers of Greater L.A. and the Bay Area. The region is somewhat protected by the huge expanse of farming land to the north and mountains to the south. With vineyards and to a lesser degree, orchards, planted on a lot of the existing farmland, the area is filtered and isolated from big city expansion and manipulation.
However, there’s no stopping someone from coming in and paying top dollar for land, so they can be in command of the water down below. Those in favor of a water district for Paso Robles, are indirectly helping outside investments, which brings with it the concern of powers-to-be outside the cities purview may gain control of the water below.
School’s admitted strategy
Last spring, the Harvard Crimson, the schools daily newspaper, reported that investments from the Harvard’s endowment portfolio were being made through a company called Brodiaea, for the expressed strategy of investing:
“in natural resources by purchasing millions of dollars’ worth of vineyard land in central California,”
The investments then in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties were $61 million while acquiring about 10,000 acres, though again, no comments were forth coming, yet it was generally thought that the move was a “water play”. That’s hearsay and probably not compelling enough. Then consider this: Harvard’s own business school did case study in 2009 on water and farming resources in California.
Ground recharge has been a problem here in Paso Robles with some shallow wells drying up in small subdivisions as well as farms. The three-year drought has been to blame, but the fact is, there is still a sea of water below called the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin. Created by the Salinas River, it’s one of the largest natural aquifers in the country. Purportedly to save what water remained, San Luis Obispo County took away the rights of landowners so they could stop all new water wells from being drilled. This means for now, only those who have existing well and vines, can continue to water their crops. Those lands are what the secretive Harvard endowment is buying up.
“In vino veritas”
This brings us back to who is becoming the regions largest landowner and grape-grower: Harvard Management Company. There’s still no word from Brodiaea, who is handling the acquisitions and management of this farming land.
The weather has been inconsistent so far this season with a much wetter than normal end of fall, but a more typical drought-like situation during the first month of winter. We should see rain coming back into the picture next week and forecast claim the rest of winter should be wet. Whether that has any bearing on Harvard’s investments or not; many will likely be watching. Nonetheless, how outside influences such as these affect Paso Robles or not, could hinge on both the climate of weather and business … and how much water is in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin.
There’s a famous Latin phrase that many here in the world of wine are familiar with that says: ‘In vino veritas’ (in wine there is truth). Harvard’s motto is ‘veritas’ meaning truth. Will Paso Robles lose their water? It remains to be seen how much truth comes out of these circumstances.
Additional sources: Mercator Research
Daryle W. Hier