Groundwater in the Cuyama Valley

Quail SpringsCommunity, Groundwater

by Brenton Kelly

Groundwater Basics

Groundwater and the history of groundwater in the Cuyama Valley

Groundwater is the largest storage reservoir of freshwater in the planetary water cycle. It is a larger volume of water than all the lakes, streams, rivers, and icy glaciers combined. It fills the spaces between the sand and silt particles of earth’s soils. When groundwater saturates the soil pore spaces it can make up 75% of the soil volume. Like an underground river, the groundwater moves through the soil down hill and down pressure gradients. Groundwater is recharged from surface waters like lakes, rivers and streams and can also be discharged from underground to feed springs, seeps, and river flows on the surface. Some groundwater is as old as the last ice age, 30-33,000 years old, and cannot be replaced by current rains. Groundwater is accessible from springs and seeps where it is discharged to the surface, or it is pumped up from underground out of a well.

Groundwater is usually the resource of last resort for Irrigation, to be employed after all other less extractive water sources are fully utilized. In most places in California there may be several water utilities serving property owners including rural irrigation and urban municipal drinking water districts. These utility districts manage massive water projects that include large mountain reservoirs, canals, and pipelines for the purpose of moving and selling this water. As droughts and overuse have decreased the supply of these surface water supplies, groundwater has been extracted more and more. There is little or no surface water available in the Cuyama Valley and commercial growers only have groundwater extraction to rely on.

What was once out of reach, out of sight and hard to get at now seemed abundantly available at the flick of a pump switch and is just another cost of doing business…big business.

History of Groundwater in Cuyama

Water flowing under the Cuyama Valley

In the 1940’s when electricity first came to the Cuyama Valley, Surface water flowed most of the year with cottonwoods and willows a 1 ⁄ 4 mile wide. Groundwater was expressed from a series of wetlands called the Great Springs at the headquarters of the Russell Ranch cattle operation in the center of the Valley. Windmill pumps that had been filling livestock troughs with 10’s of gallons a minute were replaced by deeper wells with pumps that could produce 100’s of gallons a minute. 1000’s of acres of rangeland were plowed into irrigated fields. Early crops of grains, alfalfa, potatoes, and fruit trees covered the valley floor. These crops required more water annually than the average rainfall. The difference was made up by pumping groundwater. Within 20 years the groundwater elevations were dropping and the cottonwood trees along the river were dying. In the 1980’s the basin was recognized by the State as being in overdraft, a condition when more water is being extracted than is being recharged naturally. Initially it was thought that a technical control limit would set in when the increased cost to lift the water from greater and greater depths would constrain the volume being extracted, thus reducing the overdraft. However, a gradual conversion of crops from grains and alfalfa to carrots produced a much higher economic return with less water used. Although this was heralded as an endeavor in water conservation, it simply led to more acres being plowed to grow more carrots. As further investments in conservation were undertaken with deeper wells and more efficient irrigation, still more acres were planted with carrots to apply the ‘saved’ water.

In the last 50 years more than 7 different hydro-geologic studies have been conducted in the Cuyama Valley. Every one of them has recognized the unsustainable overdraft of the basin’s agricultural land use. No local, state, or federal authority could require a property owner to recognize or abide by a reasonable limit that avoided long-term loss to groundwater in storage, until the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) came along. 

Up until 2014 when the SGMA was signed into California Law, a property owner could extract groundwater without constraint by any public agency. Generally, any proof of historic extraction of groundwater for any ‘beneficial use’ established a claim of the property right to that water under the historic use doctrine. Now SGMA established that groundwater was a resource of the Public Trust and must be protected from privatization and must be managed for the sustainable use of future generations. However, SGMA was not given the authority to determine or alter the private property rights to water. This created a legal contradiction between the new inclusion of Groundwater into the Public Trust Doctrine and historic private property rights as it relates to using groundwater. SGMA gives local Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA’s) authority to manage extractions of groundwater within a ‘Sustainable Yield’ that avoids any ‘Undesirable Results’ by the implementation of pumping reductions, fees, and fines. But at the end of the day, who has the greater authority, the State Department of Water Resources representing the public trust, or a Judge determining a property right amongst individuals.

Cuyama Groundwater Water Management by Betty Seaman
Water Management in the Cuyama Valley, concept Brenton Kelly, artwork Betty Seaman

Quail Springs and Stakeholder Engagement

Cuyama Valley’s overdrafted groundwater basin; regional involvement in the movement toward sustainable use of groundwater, and the downside of adjudication.

Quail Springs provides the good news side of this story. The restoration and recovery of the high desert spring at our farm is not only one of environmental success and resilience, it is also a story of how environmental health can feed social and civic health. Without the revitalization of the wetlands at the spring, this land-based project at Quail Springs would not have the ability to return a surplus to our regional community. Our land-based organization cannot thrive and grow without water. The resilience of our work is dependent on the resilience of our landscape.

As concerned stakeholders in an underrepresented rural community, Quail Springs identifies with the local community challenges and struggles. As a founding member and the Chair for the Cuyama Valley Community Association (CVCA), a project of the Cuyama Valley Family Resource Center (CVFRC), I, in alignment with the work I do at Quail Springs, help to bring a voice to the concerns and needs of our Cuyama Valley community. The CVCA advocates in support of public and environmental health, from restricting the amount of oil trucks on the 166 to prioritizing state funding for local high speed internet. The CVCA also advocated for a Stakeholders Advisory Committee (SAC) during the formation of the Cuyama Basin Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA). I support this through my role as Director of Watershed Advocacy at Quail Springs, currently serving as chairperson to the SAC and standing up for the sustainable future of small farmers and residents in the valley.

Cuyama Basin Water Balance, concept Brenton Kelly, artwork Betty Seaman

What is overdraft and how overdrafted is groundwater in Cuyama?

When more water is pumped out of a basin than naturally comes in with the average rains, it goes into long-term groundwater in storage loss and is considered in overdraft. State law requires that a sufficient amount of water must be allocated to the environmental users of the ecosystem, especially Groundwater Dependent Ecosystems (GDE’s) that make up most of our wetlands, seeps, and springs. The Sustainable Yield is calculated as the maximum amount of water that can be extracted before Undesirable Effects take place. According to SMGA, these undesirable effects include Groundwater Levels declining, Groundwater Storage loss, Groundwater Quality declines, Loss of Interconnected Surface Waters, and Land Subsidence. Cuyama does not suffer from the Undesirable Effect of saltwater intrusion due to our distance and elevation from the sea.

The current analysis by the Cuyama GSA suggests that the sustainable yield is approximately 1/3 of current groundwater extraction. Pumping must be reduced from 62 Thousand Acre Feet (TAF)/year today to 28 TAF/year by 2040 to achieve sustainability. That’s a tremendous amount of cutbacks. Sustainability will be painful for many operations. However, not all the basin is irrigated or experiencing overdraft. A great majority of the valley is unirrigated rangeland with windmills and small solar pumps for livestock. The Central Management Area, in the central and most developed region of the Cuyama Valley, represents less than 50% of the acreage and 95% of the total basin overdraft, and most of that groundwater is extracted by 2 entities, Grimmway and Bolthouse. At this writing in 2024, these are the same two agribusiness corporations that filed the groundwater Adjudication suit in 2021 that requires all pumpers in the Cuyama Basin to hire legal representation in the California Court for the defense of their groundwater rights or risk losing their water rights by a court judgment. Grimmway and Bolthouse are suing the rest of the Basin to stake a claim to all the water they have been over pumping. They wish to maintain the same percent of the total extraction as their average historical unsustainable overpumping. It is an ironic outcome of most groundwater adjudications that the unsustainable ‘historic use’ that caused the Undesirable Results of overdraft in the first place is used as the basis of the amount of allocation of groundwater. In this way the biggest pumpers are given a significant advantage with a proportional allocation for future use based on the degree of their abusive historic overdraft, while no advantage is awarded to the 97% of the remaining smaller growers who have been operating within reasonable limits, sometimes for generations.

What is Groundwater Adjudication?

Is it necessary?

An Adjudication is the process where a Judge determines a ‘solution’ to settle all the Groundwater property rights claims, once and for all. The only reason an Adjudication of groundwater is necessary is when property owners cannot agree to work with each other on the ‘physical solution’ to solve the overdraft. A ‘Physical Solution’ is a definitive answer to the question of how much water can be safely pumped by each and every pumper in the Basin. SGMA gives local GSAs the tools and authority to develop a sustainable allocation of the available groundwater resources for today and into the future. However, property owners who don’t agree to work within reasonable limits can and have taken the debate to the courts to establish their historic use allocations. They claim that the GSA is taking away their Rights to groundwater that they feel is their established property right. Groundwater Basin Adjudications are notoriously expensive and time consuming and they generally benefit the largest parties with the most money to spend on lawyers. Those without the resources to retain lawyers could risk the loss of their historic and future water rights.

The plaintiffs bringing the Cuyama Groundwater Adjudication suit are the same two corporations at the seats of power of both the Cuyama Basin Water District (CBWD) and the GSA. The CBWD is not a normal looking Water District. It has no real water assets. It has no reservoir, no pipeline, no contracted water from another watershed, not even a District owned well. It does not buy, move, or sell any water. It was created as a property owners association for the sole purpose of putting its own Directors on the GSA.

As Directors of both the CBWD and the GSA, the Grimmway and Bolthouse corporations participated for 5 years of input and collaboration on the creation of the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) that was adopted by the GSA and was finally accepted by the Department of Water Resources (DWR)in 2021. All that power and influence over the GSP, however, was not enough to satisfy them. As soon as any real pumping restrictions were placed on their wells, they filed for Adjudication. This of course was likely the plan they had in mind from the start. More years of ‘business as usual’ pumping while defending their unsustainable water rights has proved to be a successful strategy. Now they have sued the rest of the Basin (all the landowners in the Cuyama Valley)  in court to secure the profits they produce off the groundwater they have been over extracting.

A sign promoting the carrot boycott hangs on a fence at Charlie Bosma’s ranch in the Cuyama Valley. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Stand with Cuyama Against Corporate Greed

You can make a difference in the fight to preserve groundwater

The Cuyama Valley has experienced decades of unsustainable groundwater pumping, seven years of SGMA, and a challenging Groundwater Sustainability Plan, then a Groundwater Adjudication suit by two corporations, and now a grassroots Boycott against that greed. What now? …and what's coming next? 

The dust has certainly been stirred up on the dewatered Cuyama River bed as the community has taken on the challenge of its future.  A local grassroots organization of ranchers, residents and small farmers have stepped up with a Corporate Boycott called ‘Stand with Cuyama’, bringing attention to the unconscionable actions of two corporate agriculture businesses that have been over pumping the basin for decades. Now these corporations are suing all the other pumpers in the basin to avoid having to pay for ‘their fair share’ of the solution to a water crisis that they have created. Big Ag has clearly overreached its legal authority to justify its over extraction of this common resource in a disadvantaged community.  

Grimmway & Bolthouse,  two of the nation's largest corporate carrot growers, have been pumping over 75% of the basin's groundwater. These two Bakersfield-based corporations have been responsible for most of the long term overdraft of the basin. In 2021 the Grimmway & Bolthouse legal team filed a Comprehensive Adjudication of all Groundwater use in the Cuyama Basin. The Adjudication has caused every property owner in the basin to hire legal representation to defend their water rights in a Los Angeles courtroom.

Cuyama is as agricultural as California gets and we understand the value of ‘working lands’ and a “farmer’s right to farm”. Calling out a neighbor's bad behavior is the last thing any farmer wants to do, but the actions of Grimmway & Bolthouse are so clearly self-serving and threatening to the rest of the Basin that they inspire community outrage and cannot be ignored.

  1. Help defend our valley from the corporate groundwater grab by Grimmway & Bolthouse - visit
  2. Sign the petition and add your voice to this effort. Boycott Bunny-luv and Cal-Organic carrots. Share and spread the word!
  3. Support your local farmers market and if you haven’t already, grow a garden!

Press and Resources

Los Angeles Times

The Guardian

The New York Times

Santa Maria Sun

Santa Barbara Independent

Legal Planet

The Bakersfield Californian