A fight over precious groundwater in a rural California town is rooted in carrots

A fight over precious groundwater in a rural California town is rooted in carrots

NEW CUYAMA, Calif. — In the hills of a dry, remote part of California’s farm country, Lee Harrington carefully monitors the drips drenching his pistachio trees to make sure that they do not waste any water on the earth in the heart of a wicked one. fight

He is one of many farmers, ranchers and others living near the small town of New Cuyama who have been hauled into court by a lawsuit filed by two of the nation’s largest carrot growers, Grimmway Farms. and Bolthouse Farms, over the right to pump groundwater. .

The move has saddled residents of the community 100 miles (161 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles with mounting legal bills and prompted them to post large roadside signs urging others to boycott carrots and “Stand with Cuyama.”

“It literally boggles the mind where they farm,” Harrington said, adding that his legal fees have exceeded $50,000. “They want our water. They don’t want to tell the state how much water they can pump.”

The battle playing out in this part of rural California represents a new wave of legal challenges over water, long one of the most valuable and controversial resources in a state that grows most of the country’s produce. .

For years, California did not regulate groundwater, allowing farmers and residents alike to drill wells and extract what they needed. That changed in 2014 amid a historic drought, and as deeper wells caused the ground to sink in some areas.

A new state law requires communities to form local groundwater sustainability agencies tasked with developing plans, which must be approved by the state, on how to manage their basins in the future. The most critical overdrafted basins, including Cuyama’s, were among the first to do so with the goal of achieving sustainability by 2040. Other high and medium priority basins followed.

But disputes arose in Cuyama and elsewhere, prompting a series of lawsuits that brought entire communities to court so that property owners could defend their rights to the resources beneath their feet. . In the Oxnard and Pleasant Valley basins, growers are suing over a lack of consensus on pumping allocations. In San Diego County, a water district filed a lawsuit that was settled about a year ago.

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This is a preview of what may be to come as more regions begin to enact stricter rules around groundwater.

The lawsuit in Cuyama, which relies on groundwater for water supplies, touches every corner of a community where cell phone service is spotty and people pride themselves on knowing their neighbors.

The school secretary doubles as a bus driver and a vegetable grower offers horseshoe repairs. There is a small market, a hardware store, a boutique hotel with a Western theme and miles of land planted with olives, pistachios, grapes and carrots.

From the beginning, Grimmway and Bolthouse participated in the formation of local groundwater sustainability agencies and plans.

Their farms sit in the most overdrafted part of the basin, and both companies say they are following the assigned reductions. But they believe some farmers are getting a pass and want the courts to come up with a fair solution to reduce pumping in the entire basin, not just their lots.

“I don’t want the aquifer to be dewatered because all I have is a piece of gravel, no water, which means it’s desert land, of no value to anyone,” said Dan Clifford, vice president and general counsel to Bolthouse Land Co. “What we’re trying to get at is keeping the basin, with the understanding that you have an umpire calling the balls and the strikes.”

Grimmway, which has grown carrots in Cuyama for more than three decades, now farms less than a third of its 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) there and has installed more efficient sprinklers to save water. Seeing groundwater levels drop and pumping costs rise, the company has begun growing carrots in other states, but doesn’t plan to pull out of Cuyama, said Jeff Huckaby, the president and chief executive. company executive.

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“This is one of the best carrot-growing regions we’ve found,” Huckaby said, adding that dry regions are best for carrot roots to grow underground for moisture, which grow longer. “The soil here is good, the temperature is good, the climate is good.”

California is a “Wild West” for water but that is changing. The company has cut its water use in Cuyama and hopes to stay there for decades, he said.

Until the case, 42-year-old cattle rancher Jake Furstenfeld said he thought the companies were working for townspeople, but not anymore.

Furstenfeld, who sits on an advisory committee to the groundwater agency, has no land and no attorney. But he was helping to organize the boycott and passing out signs in the yard.

“It’s called David versus Goliath,” he said.

Many residents are concerned about the water they need to brush their teeth, wash clothes and grow a garden. The water district that serves the town’s homes said it raised rates to cover legal fees. The school district, which is trying to stay afloat so its 185 students can attend school locally, has been saddled with unexpected legal fees.

“If there is no water, we have no school,” said Alfonso Gamino, the superintendent and principal. “When the water basin is dry, I can see Bolthouse and Grimmway going somewhere else, but what about the rest of us?”

Before the state’s groundwater law, most groundwater lawsuits were filed in Southern California, where development has put more pressure on water resources. Legal experts now expect more cases in areas where farmers are being pushed to cut down on pumping.

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“For the average person or small user it’s disruptive because people should not be involved in lawsuits,” said Eric Garner, a water rights attorney who works in California law. “For large pumpers, lawyers are a cheap option compared to having to replace their water supply.”

Most of the country’s carrots are grown in California, where consumers demand a year’s supply of the popular baby carrots. The state’s climate is a prime area for growing and carrots are one of California’s top 10 agricultural products, worth $1.1 billion last year, state statistics show.

Along the highway, Grimmway’s fields were doused with sprinklers for eight hours and left to dry for two weeks so the carrot roots would stretch out in search of moisture. Critics have questioned the companies’ use of daytime sprinklers, but Huckaby said Grimmway uses less water than the alfalfa growers who farmed there before.

The Cuyama case, which was filed two years ago, had an initial hearing in January. In a recent twist, Bolthouse Farms has asked to withdraw as a plaintiff, saying the company has no right to water as a tenant grower and plans to cut its water use by 65%. in 2040. The company that owns the land, Bolthouse Land Co., is still suing.

Jean Gaillard, another member of Cuyama’s advisory committee, sells products from his garden to locals. He tries to conserve water by alternating rows of squash between corn stalks and catching rainwater on the roof of an old barn.

Paying a lawyer to represent him instead of reinvesting in his product business is a problem, he said. Meanwhile, his well water has dropped 30 feet (9 meters) in the last two decades.

“We felt like we were completely overwhelmed by the crowd,” Gaillard said. “They took all the water.”


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