After nearly five years going through the planning and appeals process, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 (with 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson and 5th District Supervisor Steve Lavganino dissenting) during its Oct. 10 meeting to uphold denial of a proposal to build 15 acres of new water reservoirs in the Cuyama Valley.
“The conclusions that I would normally make to meet the need for agriculture in an agricultural zone to thrive would normally be my default,” 1st District Supervisor Das Williams, who represents Cuyama, said during the meeting. “In Cuyama, it’s different because it’s uncertain how much those moves could threaten the viability of other farmers to continue to live and thrive in the Cuyama Valley.”
North Fork Ranch, an 840-acre vineyard in Cuyama owned by Harvard Management Company subsidiary Brodiaea Inc., proposed building three new water storage reservoirs on its property to help protect grapevines from frost damage. Any water left over would be used for irrigation, according to the staff report.
However, local farmers are concerned about more water being pumped out of the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin as water tables have dropped 80 feet since North Fork began operations in 2016, and the basin is one of California’s 21 critically overdrafted basins.
“We need water as a method of frost protection. Water applied through overhead spray is the most reliable and most protective method of protection from cold temperatures in Cuyama, and we need reservoirs to do that effectively,” Ray Shady, a representative from North Fork, told the supervisors.
The frost pond project was first approved in September 2017, but was appealed by Condor’s Hope Vineyard owners Roberta Jaffe and Stephen Gliessman due to concerns about groundwater level impacts. They requested an environmental impact report. The county agreed in 2018 and required North Fork to prepare a report, which was denied by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission in May 2023.
“We wanted to ask you to reconsider supporting agriculture and our ability to protect the vineyard,” Shady said. “If you’re asking us to not have water for frost protection, you’re basically saying, ‘I want you to take out hundreds of acres of vineyards.’”
Shady added that the company has experienced millions of dollars in crop loss and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to reestablish vines lost due to frost damage. Other methods to protect grapes from frost, like wind machines, have failed to protect the vineyard.
Shady and other Brodiaea representatives asked supervisors to focus on the land use side of this project, which is under the supervisors’ jurisdiction, and leave the concerns regarding water use to Cuyama’s groundwater sustainability agency—which now regulates water use in the basin due to the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act passed in 2014.
Fourth District Supervisor Nelson agreed and said that if the supervisors deny the project, “it would be a sad day in Santa Barbara County for agriculture.”
“I don’t like that some people have chosen to demonize Harvard. That’s not what I see this project is. I see this as a local farming group,” he said. “I want to trust the farmers on making these farming decisions on farming techniques that have been taking place for many years—decades, if not centuries.”
While 5th District Supervisor Lavagnino agreed, he wanted to see a compromise where North Fork would further restrict its frost ponds to only two instead of three, and require pond covers to prevent evaporation loss and limit the amount of water that can be used for frost protection.
“I’m not in favor of telling farmers how to farm or creating a slippery slope [that] I see where the board creeps in to tell farmers how to best protect their crops,” he said. “But at the same time, I really value what Cuyama farmers and ranchers told us, and the science tells us not to exacerbate the situation in one of the state’s critically overdrafted basins.”
Jacob Furstenfeld, a Cuyama resident and rancher for Walking U Ranch LLC, said that moving forward with this project would have devastating impacts to the valley’s groundwater.
“Some people want to say this is an attack on agriculture. In Cuyama, we are agriculture,” Furstenfeld said. “Some of us understand that this land and the water isn’t just for us to abuse for a profit, but to appreciate it and make it better for future generations.”