<b>DESERT FARMS:</b>  As California considers regulating groundwater, the over-tapped Cuyama Valley stands as a symbol of what could come.

Paul Wellman

DESERT FARMS: As California considers regulating groundwater, the over-tapped Cuyama Valley stands as a symbol of what could come.

Cuyama Valley Drying Up

Study Confirms Groundwater Being Used Faster than It Recharges

Thursday, August 21, 2014
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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.”


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Great article highlighting a huge environmental problem we've indeed known about for 20 years, but since "the Cuyama" badlands area is out of sight it languishes out of mind. Matt's correct that the recent 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."
You can see some of the unnatural "green" in this Cuyama Valley 2013 photo [4th one in the article; "San Emigdiano Badlands..."] -- the irrigated GREEN rectangle is on LEFT of photo. There is plenty of this going on out there: these farmers are "groundwater mining" and overusing OUR NATURAL RESOURCE.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 5:19 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Freedom to do what you want is being brought down to earth with a bang, with the realities of the finite nature of the planet's resources.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 9:13 a.m. (Suggest removal)

The Cuyama/Santa Maria River, Ventura River, Santa Clara River have all become storm drains for when it does rain. The Twitchell Reservoir

captures the waters which once Recharged the aquifer in Cuyama.

In the early 1960's, cue Davy to have a hissy fit, before over-population, wilderness areas with fufu names, the water still flowed, the aquifers recharged. "Water Mining" by Yankees to feed their "Earthly Boxes" has decimated steelhead and land animals. Dam Nation is groundwater mining also.

The aquifer under the Coachella Valley which built up over millions of years from the runoff of the San Jacinto Mountains has been dropping at an alarming rate from gambling, housing and golf courses.

I remember Scotties near Ozena, the Buckhorn being the only real civilization after the Deer Lodge, it was the real badlands. Nothing like backpacking in 15 degrees and trying to stay warm.

Yes AG is over using but the Dams stop the aquifer recharge. In an ideal world extraction should match the recharge rate but the Dams prevent recharge from happening. Ground Water Tables all over Southern California have dropped and current extraction rates are not sustainable, that is why we have "Salt Water Intrusion" on the Coast.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 9:43 a.m. (Suggest removal)

good points HGWMV, and amused about my "cue" to have a hissy fit...but I AM tired of golf courses, gambling casinos, very vs. development of Camp Four as an e.g. I enjoyed your ref. to the good old Buckhorn, and "the real badlands"... sigh.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 9:57 a.m. (Suggest removal)

"Freedom to do what you want is being brought down to earth with a bang, with the realities of the finite nature of the planet's resources."-tabatha

That's why libertarians believe in property rights, and not just "freedom to do whatever you want". Remember decades ago when people used to accuse libertarians of wanting to legalize murder? There are still people who lack the understanding of what libertarianism really is and who use that poor analogy on occasion.

Watersheds are often a shared resource between many property owners and so a property owner would not have exclusive rights to "do whatever they want" in a free society because that can affect their neighbor's property rights.

If a property owner has a well that doesn't share groundwater with others, they should be free to use the water until the well dries. It will decrease their property value when the well dries, so it is their loss. Eventually it will be replenished, but since it only affects their property they should be able to extinguish that well.

If the water resources are shared, however, then the property owners must come to an agreement, or some type of mediation can take place that helps fairly allocate the shared resource.

In reality, often the government comes in under eminent domain and takes the resource and gives it to large corporations, aka special interests. This would be in direct contradiction to libertarian ideology.

loonpt (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 12:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

But, that is exactly what is happening in Cuyama - private property owners are mining groundwater, without any planning and doing exactly what they want.

"Eventually it will be replensished" - in your dreams. If there was an overdraft in wet years, it is not going to be replenished to what it was before farming started.

Your post is full of false interpretations and generalizations.

tabatha (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 3:32 p.m. (Suggest removal)

I have a USGS water supply paper (1110-B) "Ground Water in the Cuyama Valley" done in 1948-1951. It says the same thing! That was over 60 years ago and we are still farming here.

wdpcuyama (anonymous profile)
August 21, 2014 at 6:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

We drove by Ozena fire station last week (on HWY 33 at base of Pine Mountain in Cuyama area). It was 98 degrees out on the Carrizo an hour before when we had finished our hike.

As we drove by I was dumbfounded to see the station watering a patch of grass out front using overhead sprinklers.

Making it all the more remarkable, we had seen a poster tacked up down the road in Ventucopa, when we stopped for a cold drink, informing the community of a discussion to be held regarding declining groundwater supplies.

WordsOfReason (anonymous profile)
August 22, 2014 at 8:29 p.m. (Suggest removal)

agribusiness is "groundwater mining" the aquifer out here beneath the horribly dry Cuyama Riverbed...Ozena is in hell, but you can hike up 5 miles to Boulder Cyn Creek and the spring there.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 23, 2014 at 6:17 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Here is a list of Dams in California, with the dates they were built.

Of course forked-tongue City People don't have anything to do with aquifers not recharging?

Those mean nasty Farmers are the clause of it all, LOL.

The Santa Ynez River, damed to hell and then pumped out of the valley to feed the city sissies in Santa Barbara, sorry blood on your hands also.

Alisal Ranch would not have had to build a lake, to guarantee water, if the aquifer really recharged, now would they. Alisal has deer, mountain lion, black bear etc. that depend on that small lake.

So Santa Barbarians enjoy your stolen water, some steelhead gave its life for it.

Oh, and your cities are falling apart, as evidenced by the 20 million gallons of water that just flooded UCLA.

I find it fascinating that we have all these earthquake codes for buildings, when your 100 year old water pipes will break like pretzels if a big one hits, buildings left standing and millions with no water, how is that going to work?

I prefer "Fish Bowls"

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2014 at 10:31 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Fish Bowls is cool, but can get pretty buggy at times, likely empty tanks right now...I usually stay back over at Cedar Creek.

DavyBrown (anonymous profile)
August 24, 2014 at 1:04 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Meanwhile on the overpopulation front:

A study by China’s Ministry of Water Resources found that approximately 55% of China’s 50,000 rivers that existed in the 1990s have disappeared.

China is over-exploiting its groundwater by 22 billion cubic meters per year.

China is branching out all over the world to own land and resources, especially to grow water intensive agriculture products that will then be sent to China.

howgreenwasmyvalley (anonymous profile)
August 26, 2014 at 1:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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