Cuyama Valley Groundwater Fight Pits Small Farmers Against World’s Largest Carrot Growers | Local News
In the early afternoon in the Cuyama Valley, a hot June sun bears down as a dry wind gusts through the remote area that runs along the border of San Luis Obispo County and Santa Barbara County.
Dust devils whip up the fine, tan soil, interrupted only by a pair of two-lane highways and the few hundred buildings that make up the valley’s towns of Cuyama, New Cuyama and Ventucopa — total population roughly 660 people. It’s an arid contrast to the region’s dominating business of agriculture fed solely by a declining and far-from-infinite groundwater basin.
In fact, aside from the noise of the blowing winds or cars whooshing by, only two other sounds penetrate the silence: the rumbling motors of wells bringing water to hundreds of hissing sprinklers that feed thirsty row crops.
The result is a sight to behold — California’s Central Coast high desert turned green to produce fresh vegetables, wine grapes and nuts for demanding shoppers around the world. During the past few decades, carrots in particular have taken over the valley floor, including some of the world’s largest growers of the crop, Grimmway Farms and Bolthouse Farms, which each harvests thousands of acres in the Cuyama basin.
Wine grapes are another popular crop in the area. The Harvard University-owned corporation Brodiaea Inc. has planted about 7,500 acres of vineyards in the western-most reaches of the basin, while Arroyo-Grande based Laetitia Vineyard & Winery owns another few thousand acres in the southeastern finger of the valley.
Some farmers fear that the massive demand on the groundwater basin, along with California’s worsening droughts, will leave the region without the resource protection it needs.
Water pumped from underground has turned the arid Cuyama Valley in the southeastern corner of San Luis Obispo County into a productive farming region. But levels are falling, and farmers are worried. (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)
So, during the past three years, the community drafted a new groundwater sustainability plan to plot a way toward bringing the basin into balance. It will soon be sent to the California Department of Water Resources for final approval, although efforts are already underway to implement some of its main priorities.
But now, suddenly, a new fear — what some might call a moving of the goalposts — is looming.
Bolthouse and Grimmway recently filed an adjudication complaint in state court that could delay or alter the pumping restrictions laid out in the groundwater sustainability plan — which many locals consider the most important pieces of the plan.
“There are farmers that have been in our valley for generations that have adapted during the droughts,” said Robbie Jaffe of the small dry-farming operation Condor’s Hope Ranch. “There are local farmers who really care about the basin and want to see it survive, and are making changes in their practices to adapt to that. What we have from Bolthouse and Grimmway, then, is quite the opposite.”
Water Levels Plunge in the Cuyama Groundwater Basin
The Cuyama groundwater basin, like others in the state, is considered to be experiencing conditions of critical overdraft as far more water is extracted than what the region’s little rainfall, Cuyama River and small creeks can supply.
This graphic shows the annual rainfall in the Cuyama Valley. (San Luis Obispo Tribune graphic)
The river is seldom seen running in recent years, the dry riverbed snaking through the middle of the valley a cruel reminder of a more saturated past. And the Cuyama Valley is drying out, with average annual rainfall amounts falling about a full inch since 1955 to 7.63 inches, according to the Santa Barbara County Water Resources Division.
Unfettered groundwater pumping over the decades has led to dramatic declines in the groundwater supply. The basin has seen a net loss of nearly 700,000 acre-feet of water since 1998, according to the latest annual report examining the basin’s condition.
One area of the basin saw groundwater levels drop nearly 81 feet from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, according to the report. Other areas saw water levels fall anywhere from about 7 to 50 feet in the same period, the report states.
In 2021, about 59,300 acre-feet of water was pumped from the basin — nearly three times the estimated sustainable yield for the basin of about 20,000 acre feet. Such pumping resulted in a 40,000 acre-foot decrease in water stored in the basin, according to the annual report.
This graphic shows where groundwater levels are modeled to have dropped. The purple dashed line outlines where the central and Ventucopa management areas are located. (Woodard & Curran graphic)
One acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons, or roughly the size of a football field under 1 foot of water.
“During this drought period, we looked around at this and said we really shouldn’t be pumping water right now because the land is so dry; the area is so stressed as far as water goes,” said Pamela Doiron, owner of the Spanish Ranch, a Cuyama Valley cattle ranch.
Some longtime farmers now see their water increasingly contaminated with minerals and chemicals such as arsenic and nitrate as they must reach deeper into the depths of the basin to find water.
Even so, thirsty new growers have continued to dip their straws into the dwindling underground supply.
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