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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 10th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 19 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 20, Issue 19

A $50,000 grant will go toward getting more residents involved in finding a fix for Cuyama's water problems

By KASEY BUBNASH

While many areas in California rely at least partially on groundwater for drinking, plumbing, and irrigation, few are completely dependent on groundwater as a sole water source, and even fewer pump so much water each year that basins are slowly running dry. But Cuyama is one of those places, and an environmental justice grant is expected to get community members closer to a solution. 

Since at least the 1950s, Cuyama’s groundwater basin has been in an overdraft condition, meaning more water is being used than is being replenished by rain. Since then, little action has been taken to sustain Cuyama’s only water source, and according to the Cuyama Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency, water pumping has actually increased over the years as the area’s agricultural production has expanded. 

The Cuyama Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency is a board of representatives that formed in 2017 after California enacted the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014, a law that requires governments and water agencies to come up with strategies to stop over pumping within roughly the next 20 years. 

According to data collected by the sustainability agency, Cuyama pumps about 60,000 acre-feet of water each year. To reach balanced levels of pumping, the area should be using only a little more than 20,000 acre-feet each year. 

“So it is very, very dramatic,” said Lynn Carlisle, executive director of the Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center. “That is a very significant overdraft.”

Cuyama is one of only 21 basins in California that are considered to be in critical overdraft—there are 515 basins total in the state—and Carlisle is one of many Santa Barbara County residents who’ve had to become small-scale experts in groundwater sustainability because of Cuyama’s dire situation.

The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires that the 21 critically overdrafted basins submit their plans for groundwater sustainability by Jan. 31, 2020, two years before all other regions. As the only agency in the Cuyama Valley region delivering social services, Carlisle said the resource center has played a central role in getting residents involved. 

It hasn’t been easy. The entire region is unincorporated, so there aren’t any city halls to gather in or local representatives to bring concerns to. Cell service is spotty, and many residents don’t have internet access—factors that can make it challenging to disseminate information.  

The Family Resource Center’s efforts to increase locals’ involvement are about to get a boost from a $50,000 environmental justice grant.

In late June, the California Environmental Protection Agency announced the participants in its 2019 Environmental Justice Small Grants Project, a competitive program that offers up to $50,000 in funding to help groups address issues in areas disproportionately affected by pollution and hazards.

The Cuyama resource center was one of 34 recipients across the state, and Carlisle said the much-needed funding will go toward providing groundwater information, training, research, and networking opportunities to community members. The resource center will work with the Cuyama Joint Unified School District to develop a curriculum on groundwater management and will help produce a “Cuyama Water/Aqua” science fair for elementary and high school students.

Through several bilingual informational sessions, town hall meetings, and support group meetings, the resource center hopes to put much of its focus on engaging Cuyama’s predominantly low-income, farmworker community. 

It’s especially important for Cuyama’s Latino population to be involved in the planning, Carlisle said, because much of the local Latino community works on Cuyama’s farms, and their jobs could be impacted by the plan, which will likely force big farmers to significantly reduce water use. 

“No one is against agriculture,” Carlisle said. “It’s just saying if we want to have water in Cuyama to drink, to grow with, to have trees, we have to do something.”

Cuyama residents don’t have any real say in the sustainability plan, Carlilse said, because there are no residents on the Groundwater’s Sustainability Agency’s board. The resource center lobbied to create an advisory committee of Cuyama residents, which meets and makes recommendations to the sustainability agency, but its members have no voting power. And the original committee lacked any residents of color, even though nearly half of Cuyama Valley’s population is Latino. 

“So getting that representation is important,” she said. 

The grant is coming at the perfect time, according to 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who serves on the Cuyama Sustainability Agency board. 

Funding for the sustainability agency comes from the highest water users—landowners and farmers who pump huge amounts of water to grow their crops. But it’s facing budget cuts because the costs of the sustainability agency have become “controversial” and “difficult,” Williams said. 

While board members have directed some spending to community involvement, Williams said those funds will probably be first to go. It isn’t easy for landowners to pay for increasing involvement, he said, when most community members want landowners to greatly reduce their water use. 

The grant will allow the Family Resource Center to pick up some of that slack, Williams said, while the board focuses on completing the draft sustainability plan. 

Right now, the draft plan would essentially require Cuyama in two years to begin reducing pumping in the main basin by about 3 percent each year. If the basin’s water levels fall under a certain amount, Williams said that would trigger stricter management. 

The argument now, he said, is regarding whether the compliance management should be paid for by fees for those who pump water or by property taxes. 

“My main concern is that we’ve got to follow through on this or something close to the draft plan ... to get approval by the state. And if we don’t, we’ll have the state take over the basin,” Williams said. “Some of the bumps to get the job done have been dissipating.” 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash can be reached at kbubnash@santamariasun.com




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