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Water fight: Cuyama Valley landowners face an adjudication lawsuit as they try to sustainably manage their groundwater basin 

Cuyama Valley's water woes dominated Santa Barbara County 1st District Supervisor Das Williams' comments during a recent hearing about the future of water well permits in his county.

"I just have some concerns about how this is going to impact high-priority basins, particularly Cuyama," Williams said during the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors' May 24 meeting. "The local people are under two stresses: One stress of their well might run dry, and the second stress is what's paying for the plan to make sure their well doesn't run dry is a pumping fee that they've never paid before."

click to enlarge CHANGING REALITY As landowners in Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin's central management area face impending pumping cutbacks, area carrot growers want the court to determine water rights. - FILE PHOTO BY DYLAN HONEA-BAUMANN
  • File Photo By Dylan Honea-Baumann
  • CHANGING REALITY As landowners in Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin's central management area face impending pumping cutbacks, area carrot growers want the court to determine water rights.

Complying with the state's 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act has been expensive in places like Cuyama, Williams said, which he added has one of the most critically overdrafted basins in California. Tension over how to best manage the groundwater has prevented the area from fully implementing its groundwater sustainability plan, which also has yet to be approved by the state.

A March 2022 executive order from Gov. Gavin Newsom stopped local governments from approving new water well permits in state-designated high-priority and medium-priority basins without receiving written verification from the respective groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) that the new well is consistent with the basin's sustainability plan. Williams' concern is that local GSAs don't have the staff or money to pay a hydrogeologist to conduct the studies necessary to make that technical determination.

He used a hypothetical to make his point during the May 24 meeting: A large, multinational corporation could send a report to the GSA that says "even though wells are dropping 100 feet a year, this well that we're going to pump a huge amount water out of ... this isn't going to impact" the groundwater sustainability plan. And the GSA, Williams said, is going to take the report by the corporation-hired hydrogeologist at face value because it doesn't have the expertise not to.

"There should be technical review by the county of the GSA's consistency letters and the hydrogeology reports that are the basis of those consistency letters," Williams told New Times. "If the GSA is just believing the applicant that wants to drill a new well, then we [the county] should at least be providing technical feedback to the GSA."

The large, multinational corporations Williams referred to include Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms, which grow carrots on large swaths of land in the Cuyama Valley. Representatives for the growers sit on both a water district formed after the state passed its groundwater management act in 2014 and the Cuyama Valley GSA tasked with managing the area's water basin. The companies also filed an adjudication lawsuit over the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin in August 2021, asking for a judicial determination of water rights for every landowner in the valley.

That lawsuit was filed shortly after the state determined that the GSA's groundwater sustainability plan needed more work. Grimmway Farms wasn't able to comment on the lawsuit. Bolthouse Farms representative Derek Yorusek, who chairs both the water district and GSA boards, didn't return a request for comment.

"It's disturbing, because they voted for the plan, and now they think they can get a better deal, after we've all worked for over five years on a plan ... a plan that means all of us will need to sacrifice. They are now suing to get more water. It's very disappointing," Williams, who also serves on the GSA, said.

Cuyama resident and Condor's Hope Vineyard co-owner Roberta Jaffe said that community members believe there's a conflict of interest for the corporations that filed a water rights lawsuit to also serve on the agency tasked with making water management decisions for that same water basin.

"Grimmway and Bolthouse are basically suing every landowner in the basin for water rights in a basin that has limited water and has to make drastic cuts in the next few years," Jaffe said. "They're one of the main perpetrators over why we have an overdrafted basin. They've been using most of the water."

Many of the valley's non-corporate landowners have been farming in Cuyama for generations, Jaffe said. Those community members have made changes to cope with the region's groundwater situation, including switching to less-water-intensive crops and making cutbacks to water pumping. That's the reality of the situation, she said, a reality the corporations are choosing not to face.

"They're not making decisions based on any respect for the people in Cuyama or the environment," Jaffe said, adding that landowners now have to spend money on lawyers as well as pay for the GSA and pumping fees. "Basically, anyone who wants to defend their water rights in the whole basin has to have a lawyer."

The adjudication process is happening on a parallel track to the GSA's work to fix and implement its groundwater management plan, SLO County Groundwater Sustainability Director Blaine Reely said. Cuyama's groundwater basin underlies land in SLO, Santa Barbara, Kern, and Ventura counties. The GSA has been working with the state Department of Water Resources to bring its sustainability plan up to California's expectations, and GSA Assistant Executive Director Taylor Blakslee said he believes it's nearly there.

Blakslee said the state found that Cuyama's plan had four areas that needed improvement—justification of its sustainability criteria (impacts the GSA is trying to avoid), details about surface waters in the area, water quality monitoring, and water drawdown in certain areas of the basin. The GSA has been working with the state on making amendments to the plan it previously submitted with the goal of submitting it to the state by July 20.

"We believe that we've adequately and completely addressed the deficiencies," Reely said. "We specifically asked them if there were any concerns or red flags. ... They've indicated ... no."

However, Bolthouse seems to disagree. After the GSA's May board meeting, Bolthouse submitted a comment letter to the GSA expressing concern that the plan will not achieve sustainability. In its letter, Bolthouse said it "continues to object to the [groundwater sustainability plan], as submitted and subsequently revised." Bolthouse states that because the plan prescribes more pumping reductions in the central portion of the basin than other areas, it is "legally inappropriate."

"To correct the overdraft, pumping reductions are necessary to align pumping with the sustainable/safe yields of the basin," the letter states. "Pumping reductions resulting in pumping allocations must recognize priority rights and be consistent with California groundwater law, which recognizes that the groundwater rights of overlying landowners are of equal priority and are shared correlatively on an equal basis."

The GSA is currently working out exactly how pumping reductions will be implemented in the central basin, Blakslee said. That area is the part of the basin experiencing the most drawdown, Williams told New Times. One of the monitoring wells in the central portion of the basin fell by 81 feet and another fell by 50 feet between the fall of 2020 and 2021, he said.

"The central basin is where most of the people live and where the most intense agriculture takes place," Williams said. "Unfortunately, every year that [pumping decreases] are delayed would be a larger decrease that is needed to bring us into sustainability." Δ

Reach Editor Camillia Lanham at clanham@newtimesslo.com.

Correction: This article was edited to correct the district Das Williams represents. New Times regrets the error.

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