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KCBX Two-Way: Groundwater in the Cuyama Valley

Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News
In 2014, Harvard University's endowment fund planted hundreds of acres of wine grapes in the Cuyama Valley.

Where does the Central Coast get its water, our most fundamental of needs? Some comes in the form of rain filling up local reservoirs; some from the State Water Project, a long system of pipes and canals that carry melted snow from the Sierra Nevada mountains to the central and southern part of the state. And a significant amount comes from underground, pumped up via wells.

Until just four years ago, groundwater was totally unregulated in California. But extended droughts made it clear that Californians needed to figure how to manage the underground water supply.

In 2014, state lawmakers passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act or SGMA. It changed everything about how groundwater will be used in the future. But will it work?

Jeremy P. Jacobs is a reporter for E&E News. That’s a non-partisan news service based in Washington DC. Jacobs is one of the news service’s California-based reporters. He recently took a close look at the Cuyama Valley, on the Central Coast. Jacobs wrote about what he found in an article that appeared in Greenwire, a publication of E&E News. His article is part of a series called "When The Wells Run Dry."

KCBX News spoke with Jacobs about his reporting in the Cuyama Valley, and started by asking him how he got interested in groundwater—and in that particular place.

Below is the transcript of a segment that aired on KCBX's Issues & Ideas on August 1, 2018.

JEREMY JACOBS, E&E Reporter: I came to this story looking at groundwater issues in California. Groundwater has long been a source of water in California that is over-abused, overused and it took basically 100 years for the state to pass its first law trying to regulate groundwater in any way. Until 2014, when the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was passed, there was no regulation of groundwater. Meaning if you had property, you could drill a well and pump to your heart's content, and many farmers did that, municipalities did that, it was pretty common practice. So what I've been trying to do is look at how this 2014 law is being implemented. And I came to the Cuyama Valley because it is an isolated valley, east of Santa Maria, that has a lot of the problems that are endemic around the state, with regard to groundwater. And under this new law, these critically overdrafted basins have set up these new agencies called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs). These are brand new agencies. They are left to these local authorities to set up, and then these agencies have to come up with some sort of sustainability plan to bring their basin into a sustainable management level over the next 20 years. So in Cuyama, what I found was a largely inexperienced GSA—or groundwater sustainability agency—and one that is largely controlled by the same agricultural interests that caused the aquifer to be overdrafted.

GRETA MART, KCBX News Director: When you started out in your reporting, had other people already looked at that place? Is coming up with a management plan going smoothly there?

JACOBS: Not exactly. And you know, there's always discussion [about] local politics, [that they] don't get the scrutiny they deserve, and this is a more hyperlocal form of politics. Cuyama is isolated, it's remote, so there is no one looking at things here. Even less people looking at this than, say, in the San Joaquin Valley, where things are more complex: it's bigger, water moves around in many different ways there. But in Cuyama, there's no one really watching. I should say that under the groundwater law, the state is sort of a backstop, meaning the agency will submit a plan by January 31 of 2020. If it is insufficient, the state will not approve it, it can come in and make changes. And I talked to some people involved in the GSA in Cuyama who said that they already anticipate that having to happen. So which, of course, starts raising questions about whether this is going to happen throughout the state, and if it does, if the state has to come in [and intervene with the plan for] a lot of these critically overdrafted basins, what does that say about the how effective the law is, or how well the law is working?

MART: Can you describe the Cuyama Valley physically for us?

JACOBS: The valley is sort of divided into two by a fault called the Russell fault. West of the Russell fault has historically been sort of left alone and been dry rangeland. That changed pretty dramatically in 2014, and I'll get to that in just a second. But the east end of the valley has been heavily farmed. The largest carrot grower in the world—Grimmway Farms—has been there for decades. Basically since the ‘70s and early ‘80s, it's been home to an industrial agricultural production. Almost all of which is by companies based in Bakersfield and elsewhere. In 2014, it changed—the west end of the valley changed—because Harvard's endowment fund spent millions of dollars buying up land and installing 850 acres of a conventional vineyard. That you can't miss, driving through the valley, because you drive right through it on a two lane highway. So, that has heightened concerns among the residents, in that west end of the valley, that the 14 wells that Harvard has drilled will affect their groundwater supplies.

MART: Tell me about groundwater science—how people are going to figure out the amount and location of water underground?

JACOBS: This kind of gets a major issue or challenge with implementation of this law. Groundwater is hard to quantify. Because it's underground, you can't see how it moves, you can't necessarily see how much is being recharged. It is a very difficult thing to measure and model. So, for example, the Harvard property managers contend that where their vineyard is being grown is its own pocket of groundwater—that is walled off from the rest of the basin and the rest of the valley by some faults and other natural features. No one's really studied that except for Harvard's company. So it will be up to this new agency to somehow verify those claims. But this is an issue that will come up all across the state, in terms of validating and verifying groundwater data. Many people who have wells that are pumping are hesitant to turn over their well logs and data, because they viewed as proprietary information. So this is sort of a rub that is going to come up across the state.

MART: Does everybody agree on standards for groundwater science? Who are the experts in this field?

JACOBS: There are some large consulting firms that will be hired by these GSAs throughout the state. In Cuyama, it's a company called Woodward and Kern, a huge consulting company. And typically, as far as governmental science goes, the state agency—the Department of Water Resources—and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are sort of held in high regard. But because of its location and how isolated it is, Cuyama really hasn't been studied very much. Even the USGS studies that I discussed in the story, they only looked at part of the valley and the amount of data they were able to get was limited. So, these are questions that all these agencies have to deal with, And is one of the reasons why [the GSAs] were given until January 31 of 2020, almost almost six years after the law was passed, [to come up with a management plan]. And then they have 20 years to achieve sustainability. So when the law was passed, there was criticism that these timelines and deadlines were too long. But, at least in terms of this first plan, there was so much that has to be done to understand the mechanics of a basin and the science of a basin, that I think that 2020 deadline is not very long or not very far out.

MART: In your story, you interviewed Santa Barbara County supervisor Das Williams? How is he involved in this story?

JACOBS: Das Williams is a Santa Barbara County supervisor and represents Cuyama. Previously, he was in the state legislature—in fact he was in the state legislature when the sustainability law was passed, and he was a proponent of the law, in large part, because of this valley. So he has now become a Santa Barbara County supervisor and he sits on the GSA board. He was forthcoming in saying that he doesn't think it's working, or at least he doesn't think that the GSA board has been working as he's seen so far. I can read a quote I had in my story…[Williams] said, “the fact that the law has gotten us together on one board won't necessarily accomplish its goals, if every decision that gets made is simply the land owners overturning the will of the voters as a whole.” And he said, “the votes that have taken place on substantive issues thus far have been the large landowners rolling us.”

MART: And finally, what was your biggest takeaway from reporting this story?

JACOBS: What I think the big takeaway for me, and what I tried to portray in this story, was that this small isolated valley, with very few people, but with big agricultural players and big, deep pocketed players like Harvard's endowment fund...how it illustrates a lot of the issues that these groundwater agencies have to cope with, across the state, in implementing this law. And that it raises questions about how effective the law will be, and it raises questions about just whether the law will work. Depending on the year, groundwater makes up 30 to 60 percent of the water Californians use in a year, depending on how much rain and snowfall there's been, so I think it's something that needs to be closely watched. And the management of that resource, I think, should be important to your listeners and everyone else in the state.

MART: That was Jeremy Jacobs, a California-based reporter for E&E News, a nonpartisan news service based in Washington D.C.

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