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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on August 17th, 2016, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 17, Issue 24 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 17, Issue 24

Thirsty for solutions: Residents and growers are at odds over how to protect groundwater sustainability in Cuyama


The Cuyama Valley is remote. It’s so remote, that it’s isolated by at least 25 miles in any direction, and newspaper distribution is limited to one or two publications. It’s so remote, that its residents have to rely on one source of water—the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin, a precious resource that is rapidly disappearing.  

Jim Wegis is the owner of Triangle E. Farms, which sits near the small, unincorporated town of Ventucopa. Although his family has been in the Cuyama Valley for roughly 150 years, Wegis has been farming his current property for less than four decades. 

Farming in the Cuyama Valley began a little more than half a century ago. Inefficient irrigation practices led to the state declaring Cuyama’s groundwater basin to be critically over-drafted.

He feeds his crops with two wells—one of which recently went dry—that tap into the groundwater basin deep below the valley. Now in the fifth year of California’s drought, farmers are heavily reliant on the aquifers, drilling deeper wells to get the water they need. 

Farming is not natural in the high desert that is Cuyama Valley. Modern agriculture began there only shortly before the second half of the 20th century. 

“When we first started hearing about all of these water problems, we changed our focus,” Wegis told the Sun. “I’m 69 years old, and I have to cut back on what I have to do.” 

The roughly 1,100 residents of New Cuyama are thirsty too. With the valley’s only source of water drying up, a proposal for the formation of a local water district composed of landowners—including big agriculture—is being met with opposition from residents and smaller landowners who also depend on the same basin.   

The opposition comes because Cuyama’s groundwater basin is in a state of “critical overdraft,” a designation given by the California Department of Water Resources.

In September 2014, the state Legislature passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act that’s intended to protect California’s groundwater. 

The act is meant to buffer the drought-stricken land with the state’s available groundwater. It allows the formation of local water districts and requires them to come up with customized groundwater sustainability plans to fit their needs.  

A petition by growers to form the Cuyama Basin Water District is currently before the Santa Barbara County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). Growers fear that if a district is not formed by June 30, 2017, the state will impose restrictions they don’t want. Because of the Cuyama basin’s critically over-drafted status, a groundwater sustainability plan must be put in place by Jan. 31, 2020. 

But residents and smaller landowners say they’re being left out of the process and fear that the rush to implement the district will leave them with inadequate representation and, at worst, without water for future generations. 

The ‘largest ever’ district

Encompassing more than 83,000 acres, the proposed district would be what Paul Hood calls the “largest ever” in his 30 years as LAFCO executive director. 

The district includes portions of four counties—Kern, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Santa Barbara—although Santa Barbara County LAFCO would be the lead agency in forming the district since most of the assessed value of taxable property sits within the county. 

New Cuyama, a town of roughly 1,100 residents that gets its water from the Cuyama Community Services District, would be excluded by the proposed water district even though some say it taps into the same aquifer.

Landowners, who occupy roughly 71 percent of the land within the proposed district, signed the petition to form the district. Some of them include large operations like Grimmway Farms, Caliente Ranch, and Bolthouse Farms—a subsidiary of Campbell Soup Company. All together, the growers and ranchers account for at least $650 million in net sales each year for products that are distributed to markets near and far. 

Even though it technically wouldn’t have the power to manage the groundwater—which is the job of the state Water Resources Control Board—the proposed district would have the power to “administer, develop, construct, and operate projects and programs” that would stabilize the basin, according to Ernest Conant, a prominent Bakersfield water attorney who’s heading up the petition for the landowners. Conant has more than 30 years of experience in dealing with such issues. 

The landowners want the district because they use most of the irrigated water in the valley and say they’ll be most affected by groundwater restrictions.  

“Naturally, landowners want to be represented,” Conant said. “They have the long-term interest in seeing what’s balanced. It’s only fair that these people who are going to be most affected, that they be represented and get a seat at the table.” 

One of those landowners is 82-year-old Fred Reyes, owner of Walking R Ranch. Reyes has been ranching cattle in the same location at the mouth of the Santa Barbara Canyon since 1945, and is the descendant of one of the original Spanish land grantees from the early 19th century. He was in Cuyama before farming ever existed and has witnessed the gradual draw down of water. He needs water for grass upon which his cattle graze. He’s had to bring herds closer to home, where the water is. 

“A lot of springs have dried up,” Reyes told the Sun. “You can’t put cattle where there’s no water.” 

Although only a portion of his land sits within the proposed district, he echoes many sentiments of the landowner petitioners about what’ll happen if the district isn’t formed before the deadline. 

“The state government will come in and make its own rules,” he said. 

If formed, the district will comprise only landowners or their representatives and participate in the groundwater sustainability agency that includes the Santa Barbara County Water Agency, along with the other three counties and the Cuyama Community Services District (CCSD), which provides sewer and water to New Cuyama residents. 

But anyone other than the petitioners would be excluded from having a say in the formation of the district, if it’s approved by LAFCO, and that’s where some problems lie.  

One acre, one vote

If LAFCO approves the district’s formation, the petitioners would be allowed to create the district based on the amount of land they own. State law allows one vote per acre of land, rather than one person, one vote—which is viewed as undemocratic to some of the residents and the small landowners who submitted their own petition with more than 100 signatures opposing the district.

The proposed district’s boundary is drawn to exclude the CCSD. Board member John Coats said excluding the CCSD would disenfranchise the disadvantaged community of New Cuyama from the elective process.

For Coats, the voting process “results in a situation where our community would have very limited influence on the outcome of such an election,” he said.  

Coats contends the district’s proposed powers will directly impact the landowners who’ve been managing acreage using their own wells and pipelines for decades without a district. For him, powers are simply a matter of semantics.

“It’s an easily understood convention that whoever provides production and delivery of a resource inherently has the power of regulation and restriction,” Coats said. “The dominance of landownership of a few large corporations will invest enormous potential within the state program, a program which had been prompted by a general concern for all of the people in the state.” 

For others, such as F. Paul Chounet, Cuyama Unified School District superintendent, who spoke on behalf of the district before the LAFCO commissioners on Aug. 5, it’s about money. The school holds about 20 acres within the proposed district but is also serviced by the CCSD. Eight years ago, a decreasing water table forced the school to spend $400,000 to dig a new well for the school’s 160 students, which he said ended up being a “significant hit” to the school’s $3 million budget. 

“The one acre, one vote will disenfranchise the interests of the school district and the students,” Chounet said, adding that the district should be formed using one person, one vote. 

Ernest Conant is a Bakersfield-based attorney who’s leading the charge for the proposed Cuyama Water Basin District comprised of landowners who will be most affected by recent California laws in groundwater management.

At least one landowner who signed the petition to form the district, Gene Zannon of Santa Barbara Pistachio Company, said the idea of one acre, one vote wasn’t in the original petition.

“This whole thing that everybody who signed that petition was in effect signing one acre, one vote is not correct,” Zannon said. 

On the opposite side of the coin, Conant argues one person, one vote would disenfranchise his clients, who he says will be affected the most by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. 

“Giving landowners a voice in this process would not undermine the SGMA [Sustainable Groundwater Management Act] process,” he said. 

Former CCSD member and New Cuyama resident John Mackenzie—a vocal critic of the proposed district—likens the district to that of a private cartel that has the power of a public agency that’s being fast-tracked to avoid opposition.

“This is a fast-moving train,” Mackenzie told the LAFCO commissioners on Aug. 5. “You’re being asked to do your part to maximize the interests of a private interest group. Santa Barbara County will bear the consequences.” 

Environmental and political consequences aside, Mackenzie argues that it’s the unforeseen long-term consequences that’ll come with not having the basin properly defined nor having a budget to fund the district, as required by the California Department of Water Resources. 

A map and a budget

According to Randy Hanson, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in San Diego, the current level of the aquifer isn’t where it is because of recent pumping activity. It’s a result of decades of pumping, the peak of which came in the 1970s and 1980s with inefficient irrigation practices, and when water-intensive alfalfa was the main cash crop.  

Now, decades of over-pumping have caused some parts of the valley to sink as much as a quarter inch, Hanson said. This isn’t a good thing, since it could ultimately affect road surfaces, fields, or even gas pipelines, he added.

In fact, Hanson said that some growers are pumping so deep (as much as 1,000 feet in some spots), that they’re pulling water as old as 10,000 to 30,000 years old—or as old as the last Ice Age. When you go that deep, he said, the water contains unwanted material, such as arsenic, not fit for human consumption.

Agriculture in the Cuyama Valley historically uses more water—a lot more—than what’s consumed by residents in the CCSD. At this point, Hanson said the water is being pumped out of the ground twice as fast as it can be recharged.

Part of the problem with forming the district is defining where exactly the basin ends or begins, or if certain regions have more water than others. It turns out that it’s not simple to determine. A 2014 study conducted by the USGS found that the Cuyama basin is actually composed of several sub-regions each with their own water availability, yet it’s unclear how interconnected they are.

This complicates the matter of creating a single district boundary, when in fact the basin could require multiple districts. 

“The thing about the valley is that it’s structurally three major different regions,” Hanson told the Sun. “They [Cuyama] have to realize that their region has multiple aquifers that will have to be managed differently with respect to the overarching context of what they want to do to sustain their resources.” 

John Mackenzie (foreground, far right)—and other New Cuyama residents—opposes the formation of the proposed water district, which he contends will be disastrous for thousands of people within the community services district who also depend on the underlying basin.

Triangle E. Farms landowner Wegis believes different sub-regions ought to be managed separately. 

“Up in the Ventucopa basin, we feel that we need to be treated somewhat differently,” Wegis said. “If they’re going to put us all in one pot and we have to cut water by 50 percent, we don’t feel that’s fair because our water table doesn’t have to raise that much.” 

Adding to the problem is funding the new district, which is contingent on Proposition 218—a voter-approved measure passed in 1996 that requires the majority of tax- or ratepayers to vote on new or increased taxes in local jurisdictions. 

If the district is formed, a majority of its landowners would need to vote on a funding model that would pay for the district.  

According to Conant, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act process will be expensive. Santa Barbara County was awarded $249,240 last March for the formation of a Cuyama Valley groundwater sustainability agency, according to state records provided to the Sun by the Department of Water Resources. 

If the ballot doesn’t receive the majority of votes by the May 2017 LAFCO meeting, the newly formed district, should it be approved, would automatically be dissolved.  


If the state steps in to resolve Cuyama’s water situation, it can prepare a sustainability plan with no local representation whatsoever.

The state could, in fact, fall upon the individual counties to act as their own groundwater sustainability agencies, which could be burdensome and expensive. 

The LAFCO staff recommended approval of a district. Kern and SLO counties have supported that decision, but so far, LAFCO has received no response from Ventura County. 

At the Aug. 5 meeting in Santa Barbara, LAFCO commissioners decided to postpone the final vote until Sept. 1 to collect more information. Even if the district is approved, it still goes to a vote before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. If denied, there’s the possibility of litigation. 

Growers are already accepting the grim possibility of fallowing parts of their land. 

“It’s going to change a lot of our community,” Grimmway’s Patricia Poire said at the LAFCO meeting. “They realize they have to fallow land and it will impact family and employees.” 

Wegis added: “If I can’t farm my ground, I need to be reassessed. How can they tax me at the same rate if I have no farm? What are my options? Sell the farm? Do I want to keep it in the family until the water comes back up?”  

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at

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