State Knocks ‘Deficiencies’ in Cuyama Valley Groundwater Plan

Dropping Well Water Levels, Threats to Water Quality and Wetlands Need More Study, Officials Say

An 850-acre vineyard, shown here in 2016, was installed in the northwestern Cuyama Valley by the Harvard Management Company, the investment arm of Harvard University. | Credit: Santa Barbara County Water Agency

Siding with Cuyama Valley conservationists, the state Department of Water Resources this month sent a local agency back to the drawing board to revise its 20-year plan for replenishing the groundwater basin, now severely depleted after decades of water-intensive, industrial-scale farming.

In a June 3 letter to the Cuyama Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA), the department praised its “aggressive approach” in proposing to reduce agricultural pumping in the valley by up to two-thirds by the year 2040. But the department also identified a long list of “deficiencies” in the plan and suggested “corrective actions” to address them.

Cuyama Valley Map | Credit: Cuyama Groundwater Sustainability Plan

It was a victory of sorts for the community organizations and small-scale farmers who have long argued that a 20-year plan was too little, too late. They have invoked the specter of Dust Bowl conditions if the GSA does not crack down on the global carrot corporations that dominate the valley, their sprinklers running full-blast in 100-degree summer heat.

“Overhead watering 24 hours a day every day during the summer does not constitute water conservation,” Louise Draucker, a New Cuyama resident and GSA advisory committee member, wrote to state officials last year. “The plan has the likely prospect of drying up the valley even before this experiment is finished. This once-beautiful valley that supported a large variety of wildlife is headed to desertification.”

But today, “there’s a comforting sense that we were finally heard,” said Brenton Kelly, the advisory committee chair and the watershed advocacy director for Quail Springs permaculture, a nonprofit educational farm near Ventucopa.

“What’s obvious to the Department of Water Resources,” Kelly said, “is that the carrot conglomerates want to slowly dial back the pumps without any reference to the fact that the groundwater levels in local wells are plummeting, water quality is getting worse and worse, and cottonwoods are dying.”

‘Minimum Thresholds’

In its June 3 letter, the department called on the GSA to justify the “minimum thresholds” it has set for managing basin-wide sustainability, and to better describe what would happen to farm operations, public well water supplies, and wetlands if the groundwater drops below those thresholds.

The GSA must provide “a thorough and reasonable analysis of the groundwater conditions that [it] is trying to avoid” so that the department can evaluate whether its plan will succeed, the letter said.

The department lists the Cuyama basin as one of the 21 most critically over-drafted basins in California; the majority are in the Central Valley. Most years, about twice as much water is pumped out of the Cuyama Valley as is replenished by rain. This year, the region has received less than four inches.

Heavy irrigation on carrot fields, shown here in the Cuyama Valley, is drawing down the already depleted groundwater basin. | Credit: Santa Barbara County Water Agency

In the heavily farmed central portion of the valley, studies show, the water table is dropping as much as eight feet per year, the ground surface is sinking, and the well water is 1,000 feet deep in places.

Under the Cuyama Basin plan, if 30 percent of the GSA’s 60 monitoring wells drop below their minimum thresholds for two consecutive years, more drastic pumping reductions could be required. But in its June 3 letter, the department asked the GSA to explain how it came up with this formula. The agency’s own data show that in 39 percent, or 19 of its monitoring wells, the water level has already dropped below the minimum thresholds in just the first eight months of monitoring.

Arsenic and Nitrates

In addition, echoing comments on the plan that were sent in by the Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center, Cuyama Valley Community Association, and state Water Resources Control Board, among other groups, the department also urged the GSA to expand its water quality monitoring and management goals to include arsenic and nitrates. Both pollutants “appear to be relatively widespread” in valley groundwater, and both exceed safe standards, the June 3 letter said.

New Cuyama, a community of about 700 people, including many low-income Latino families, has one municipal well; it’s 800 feet deep and requires an expensive water treatment system for the removal of arsenic. Most residents choose to pay for bottled water.

The department will decide next January whether to approve or deem “incomplete” or “inadequate” the groundwater sustainability plans for all 21 of California’s critically overdrawn basins.

On June 3, in addition to Cuyama, the Paso Robles GSA received a notification of “deficiencies,” while the state approved plans submitted by Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. If a GSA ultimately fails to meet sustainability targets, the department can intervene to impose its own rules.

The Cuyama Valley GSA’s 11-member board of directors represents the two largest carrot corporations in the world, Grimmway and Bolthouse farms of Bakersfield, Calif.; valley property owners; the Cuyama Community Services District; and Santa Barbara, Kern, San Luis Obispo and Ventura counties, and it is scheduled to discuss the state’s concerns at its July 21 meeting.

“There are likely going to be areas we need to look back and review,”

Taylor Blakslee, the agency’s assistant executive director, said this week, adding that “a fair amount of compromise” went into the groundwater plan.

“We’re not really caught off-guard by these comments,” he said. “They were made by various stakeholders at different times.”

Harvard’s Wells

One of the GSA’s most contentious decisions was to set a low minimum threshold for well water levels in the northwestern portion of the basin, where, in recent years, the Harvard Management Company, the investment arm of Harvard University, planted an 850-acre vineyard and drilled 14 new wells.

In its June 3 letter, without mentioning Harvard by name, the Department of Water Resources questioned why the GSA was allowing water levels to drop more than 100 feet in the northwestern basin before any action was required; and why no pumping reductions for this area were included in the 20-year plan. The letter pointed out the concentrated presence here of “groundwater dependent ecosystems” — the wetlands and stands of cottonwoods where Cottonwood Creek flows into the Cuyama River.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Das Williams, who represents most of the Cuyama Valley, said he and other county representatives on the GSA board had brought up many of the same concerns in the past. He called the board’s decision on the Harvard property “a political compromise.”

“What the GSA should do is cooperate and make the reasonable changes and have a better plan for achieving sustainability,” Williams said.

Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free.

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