Over five years ago, Jim Wegis, a farmer who has been farming in the Cuyama valley for his entire life, was aware of the future consequences for his alfalfa fields that require a lot of water.
He converted the majority of his 140 acres of land from producing seasonal hay to permanent olive and pistachio groves, significantly decreasing his impact on the nearby aquifer. According to him, “I reduced my water consumption by almost half.”
The alteration was expensive and caused a lot of anxiety. Wegis had to invest more than $150,000 in new irrigation systems and equipment, and he suffered from lost profits during the time his orchards were growing. “There was a considerable period of time where income was minimal,” stated Wegis. “And the situation is still ongoing.”
Despite Wegis’ individual attempts to reduce water consumption, a lawsuit was filed against him and other landowners and institutions in Santa Barbara county’s Cuyama valley by two major carrot producers, Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms. These companies, which hold a significant share in a $69 million industry, are seeking a court ruling on the allowable amount of water usage for themselves and their neighboring entities.
On January 8, 2024, the case will be brought to state court. This case involves all residents of the state-defined “disadvantaged unincorporated communities” near Santa Barbara, including homeowners, businesses, small-scale farmers, ranchers, and local schools. These communities, which include Cuyama, New Cuyama, and Ventucopa townships, are all reliant on the same dwindling water basin. There are approximately 1,200 people living in this valley.
However, the determination process will not be straightforward. The specific boundaries of the basin are not well-defined, making it unclear which landowners will need to confront the carrot companies in what is expected to be a lengthy and multi-stage process. It is likely that residents from neighboring small towns in the valley will also become involved in the case. Despite efforts by representatives from Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms to identify relevant properties, they are not always successful. In some cases, documents have been attached to stakes on the properties in question in an effort to serve landowners for the determination process.
Residents who do not appear in court risk losing their pumping rights permanently. These residents rely solely on groundwater for their household water and are at the forefront of a nationwide issue of groundwater depletion. Currently, 40% of groundwater sites have reached record low levels since 1920.
The Cuyama groundwater basin, covering 230 square miles across Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Kern, and Ventura counties, is among 21 basins in California experiencing “critical overdraft”. This means that more water is being used than replenished, despite the valley only receiving an average of 8 inches of rain per year. Local residents are frustrated that they have had to hire lawyers to protect this increasingly scarce resource.
Grimmway and Bolthouse are the dominant water extractors in this arid valley. Most of the water is sourced from underground. In the previous year, approximately 66,700 acre-ft of water was extracted from the Cuyama basin, while only 28,200 acre-ft was replenished. This year, it is expected that two companies will extract more than 35,000 acre-ft of water, which accounts for over 75% of the allocated water in the entire valley. This amount is enough to meet the water needs of 70,000 households in California, as seen from the companies’ overhead sprinklers. The lush carrot fields provide a striking contrast to the dull sandstone of the surrounding hillsides.
Due to the decrease in water levels in the valley, the water quality has also declined. In certain regions of the basin, tests have shown the presence of harmful substances such as boron and arsenic. Stephen Gliessman, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Cruz and co-owner of Condor’s Hope Ranch vineyard and farm, noted that the town of New Cuyama had to implement an arsenic removal system to adhere to drinking water regulations. This is due to the fact that they are drawing water from deep underground, which has accumulated high levels of contaminants over a long period of time.
In 2014, the California legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in order to address critical overdrafts. The act requires local agencies and stakeholders to create a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) that outlines necessary measures for achieving sustainable conditions in affected basins by 2040. This includes establishing a minimum threshold to ensure the basin is replenishing itself and to prevent problems such as subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and decreased water quality. In order for Cuyama to achieve sustainable conditions, groundwater pumping may need to be reduced by 50% to 67%.
The first reductions in pumping for the Cuyama basin groundwater sustainability agency (GSA), led by government representatives and prominent landowners such as Grimmway and Bolthouse, were declared this year. The department of water resources approved a 5% decrease in pumping compared to 2021 levels, which was a particularly dry year where all parties were required to pump about 20% more. These limitations pertain to the central area of the valley with the most severe groundwater depletion. This flat and fertile land is also where Grimmway and Bolthouse control over half of the acreage.
In April 2021, the companies agreed to decrease their water usage. However, they later took legal action and requested that a judge allocate specific water rights to the 73 wells in the most heavily impacted area of the basin as part of the legal process.
A representative from Grimmway Farms stated that the company submitted due to “strong resistance from the GSA board to investigate the connection of pumping areas throughout the basin or to contemplate overall reductions for all major water users in the Cuyama Valley.”
While the GSA can set rules, it does not have the authority to determine groundwater rights. That requires a court ruling by a judge. Figuring out the fate of every well could take years – possibly decades – to resolve. The nearby Antelope Valley groundwater basin adjudication, another California water rights case in which Grimmway and Bolthouse were both involved, lasted 15 years. “These things usually draw out for so long that all the small folks go broke trying to retain our water rights,” said Gliessman.
Prior to the implementation of groundwater sustainability plans in California, courts typically supported the concept of historic use as a basis for water allocation. This means that each party’s past consumption would dictate their future access to water. The carrot companies, who were previously able to freely pump water before the GSA restrictions, may be seeking this same advantage through their lawsuit.
“It’s a somewhat contradictory situation where those who were responsible for draining the basin are the ones granted water rights for the future,” stated Casey Walsh, an anthropologist specializing in the social and cultural aspects of water at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “It appears to be an odd outcome of past water adjudications.”
This is the fifth legal case of its kind filed in the state since the passing of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). It presents an opportunity for companies to revise the existing plan and potentially gain more water by implementing cutbacks for all residents and small farms in the area.
The judge should consider the GSP, but ultimately this is a trial to determine the extent of similarity to the already approved plan. Brenton Kelly, chair of the Cuyama basin GSA stakeholder advisory committee, expressed confusion about the relationship between adjudication and the GSP. He believes they should be closely intertwined, but they are currently being treated as separate and parallel processes. The biggest uncertainty is determining who holds the ultimate authority.
The Cuyama Joint Unified school district, known to serve primarily low-income Latino families, is facing financial strain due to a legal suit. The district has depleted its emergency funds and has already paid $6,000 in legal fees. It is now budgeting an additional $15,000 to $20,000 to hire an expert to assess its water usage. Superintendent Alfonso Gamino expressed concern over the significant impact this will have on the district’s reserves.
If the costs become excessive or unforeseen costs arise, such as a significant roof repair, there is a possibility that the school may revert back to a fiscal solvency plan overseen by the county. Additionally, if the school district were to lose access to its water, there would be no functioning drinking fountains, sinks, or toilets. According to Gamino, schools cannot operate without access to water.
According to representatives from Grimmway Farms, the company does not support reducing the water rights of the Cuyama Community Services District, Cuyama Valley High School, or residential water users who pump less than two acre-feet per year.
However, numerous residents and small farms are concerned that their limited water consumption may be at risk if they fail to safeguard their rights during the adjudication procedure. To mitigate expenses, many have banded together in groups of 10 to 25 to hire legal representation.
Gliessman and Jaffee, owners of Condor’s Hope Ranch, have paid $5,000 as a deposit for a group and also have ongoing monthly costs associated with the legal matter. They use less than one acre-foot of water annually for their residence and five acres of drought-resistant vineyards, specifically chosen to thrive in the hot and dry weather.
Wegis pumped a significantly larger amount of water compared to Gliessman and the other small users in the valley. However, the 358.11 acre-ft that he extracted from his well in the past year only makes up slightly more than 1% of the total water used by carrot producers. Although he is located on the opposite side of the boundary that is currently under dispute, he is actively working to keep his section of the basin distinct from the main one used by carrot producers. This ongoing legal battle has already cost him a substantial amount of money, with over $40,000 spent on attorney fees thus far.
These expenses are contributing to his monetary burden and that of senior residents who may potentially lose access to water on their properties that have been in their families for many years.
Wegis expressed frustration with Grimmway and Bolthouse, stating that it is unjust for many people to be affected in this way. Wegis believes that the source of the issue is known, but those responsible are trying to make others suffer as well.