The battle over water in Santa Barbara’s high desert

Cuyama is one of 21 critically overdrafted groundwater basins in the state. Now, the community must come together and figure out a way forward before there’s nothing left.

Highway 166 is a long, lonely road. 

It connects Bakersfield to Santa Barbara. The surrounding landscape is dry, hilly and filled with sage and scrubby plants. The Los Padres Mountains tower in the background.

This highway takes you right into the town of Cuyama, where Steve Gliessman lives. Right now, he’s worried about water.

“The Cuyama Valley is one of just two groundwater basins that’s 100 percent reliant on groundwater,” he said. “We got no rivers, no lakes, there’s no pipeline. Groundwater’s it.”

Everywhere you look, that groundwater is getting sucked out. Deep wells and industrial sprinkler systems freckle the land. Every couple of miles you drive, bright green fields pop up like a mirage.

A farm field in Cuyama. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

On many fields, the crop hidden beneath the ground is carrots.

“Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms are two of the largest carrot growers in Cuyama Valley, as well as the nation,” said Derek Yurosek, who works for Bolthouse Properties. If you see a bag of carrots in the grocery store that says Bolthouse Farms or Bunny-Luv on the packaging, chances are they were grown in Cuyama.

Yurosek and Gliessman are both worried about the same thing: if everyone keeps extracting water at the current rate, there won’t be any left. Cuyama is one of 21 critically overdrafted groundwater basins in the state. The US Geological Survey estimates twice as much water is being taken out as is going back into the aquifer. 

Now the community is facing a state deadline to do something about it. The newly created Cuyama Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency — an 11-member board comprised of mostly large landowners and county officials — has until January 2020 to develop and begin implementing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

But, change is hard. First, no one knows how much groundwater is getting used, or who’s using too much. That’s because if you dig a well on your land, you don’t have to keep track of how much you’re pumping. Even if you do keep track, you don’t need to tell anyone.

When asked how much water Bolthouse Farms pumps to grow its carrots each year, Yurosek replied, “You know, I do, but that’s proprietary information.”

Here’s another thing no one really knows: how much water can be taken out each year without the aquifer shrinking further. Water consultants have been hired to find out.

And while all of this gets figured out, a new major water user has entered the valley.

In 2014, Harvard Management Company— the stewards of Harvard University’s $37.1 billion endowment — bought 7,500 acres of empty cattle grazing land and began planting grapevines.

“We feel confident in planting 850 acres. We feel that’s a conservative acreage based on our assessment,” said Ray Shady, who helps manage the land through Grapevine Capital Partners.

850 acres of grapevines were recently planted on land owned by Harvard University. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

Small farmers and residents drive by this newly planted vineyard and shake their heads. They see Harvard as just another large landowner sucking water out of an emptying cup.

“We’d like to see, as soon as possible, that overdraft to stop,” said Gliessman. “That means somebody’s going to have to stop using so much water. And then what we’d like to see is a different type of agriculture that works within those limits. What that might mean is carrots might not be as common. A heavily irrigated vineyard might not be the model.”

Jake Furstenfeld from Sunridge Nursery, which provided Harvard University with the grape stalks for its newly planted vineyard in Cuyama. (Kathryn Barnes/KCRW)

But, most farmers say switching to less water-intensive crops would change their entire business model.

“For instance, say someone that has an apple orchard in Venocopa,” said Yurosek from Bolthouse Properties. “To say, ‘okay you’re going to go to growing grain,’ that’s a very difficult decision and a large impact.”

Most residents — farmworkers and farmers alike — understand concessions will have to be made.

“If water goes, then we go, the whole town will go, so for me, it’s about finding a middle ground between sustainability and the economics of it all,” said Cuyama resident Jake Furstenfeld, who manages a grapevine nursery. “Basically if farming is gone, the whole town’s gone. So we gotta find some way to keep it all together.”

Keeping it all together may not be easy. But as longer droughts become more normal, working together may be the only option.

You can learn more about Cuyama’s plan to reach groundwater sustainability here.