California is the only western state that doesn’t regulate how much groundwater gets sucked out of the earth, so any property owner, from corporate farms in the Central Valley to mansion owners in Montecito, can legally pump until their wells run dry. As the ongoing drought forces farmers to rely on groundwater like never before, state legislators are rethinking such Wild West policies, and two separate but similar bills are now running through the halls of Sacramento, aimed at forcing regional agencies to gain some control by 2020.
Whether the dry days of 2014 will prompt such oversight remains unknown, but if not, there’s a chance that more of California could look like the Cuyama Valley, the high desert region of Santa Barbara County’s northeastern corner. Last week, a long-awaited federal study confirmed what most already knew: Cuyama’s large farming operations, which are mostly focused on growing organic carrots and grain, are draining the valley’s groundwater resources twice as fast as they can be replenished.
“Right now, they’re basically groundwater mining,” said Randy Hanson of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), which collaborated with Santa Barbara County’s Public Works Department on the study to evaluate water usage from 1949 until 2010. Historically, the water table was around 100 feet below the surface, with springs even popping out along certain faults, but Hanson said the water is currently “well over 400 feet, and, in some cases, 600 feet deep.” The study calls the ongoing extraction rate “unsustainable,” warning that the current practices may not allow for farming in the future.
But running out of water is just one concern. The lowered water table means that ancient water, which is more infused with arsenic and other natural but potentially nasty chemicals, is getting pumped to the surface to water the crops. Though considered safe for agriculture, Hanson said, “It’s not something you’d want to drink on a regular basis.”
More worrying may be actual sinking of the landscape, as the town of New Cuyama has subsided 1.6 feet since it was developed in the 1940s, and the overall valley has slipped 0.2 feet since 2000 alone. That doesn’t sound like much, but Hanson said similar drops in the Oxnard Plain required “several millions” of dollars to be spent on fixing levees on Calleguas Creek. The USGS’s recent report on subsidence in the San Joaquin Valley shows some areas dropping nearly one foot per year, a rate that will rip up roads and other infrastructure while raising the risk of floods.
Though disturbing, the study’s results were a foregone conclusion for many in the Cuyama Valley, as they reflect what previous studies have already demonstrated. The question that remains is how to address the issue, and a range of options will be presented to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on September 9. Public Works’ Tom Fayram, whose staff is analyzing possible next steps under existing and possible future state and county policies, said the dry times further exacerbate the situation. “When we started this analysis, we were not in a serious drought. But we recognize that since then we are, and thus concerns are heightened,” he said. Complicating matters is that the Cuyama Valley falls on the border of Santa Barbara, Ventura, San Luis Obispo, and Kern counties, yet there is no interagency oversight.
One possible outcome will be adjudication of the water, in which someone sues to “divide up the pie,” said Hanson, and a judge allocates who gets what. That process was triggered in the Santa Maria Valley back in 1997, but it eventually cost those involved more than $11 million and 16 years in court. It’s no wonder Hanson applauds the alternative efforts employed in the Pajaro Valley near Monterey Bay, where the stakeholders preemptively called in legal advisors in hopes of preventing such lawsuits.
Also unclear is what the major Cuyama Valley farming companies think of the study. Calls to Grimmway Farms and Duncan Family Farms were not returned as of press time. Cuyama watchdogs suspected that these farms may try to discount the work, as researchers were blocked from access to their wells. “We weren’t allowed onto their land once the study started,” said Hanson. “It would have been better to have their cooperation, and they would have learned from it … but it wasn’t a detriment. It didn’t stop the show.”