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Basin battle: Cuyama Valley's small farmers, landowners face off against corporations over groundwater

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Editor's note: This is a truncated version of a longer story running concurrently in our sister paper, the Santa Maria Sun, titled "Faces of the valley."

Dust kicked up onto Stephen Gliessman's work boots as he walked through his vineyard. A wide-brimmed hat protected his face from the Cuyama sun beating down in the 90-degree midday heat.

"I'll be much more at peace when all of these grapes are out of the field and into the winery," he said in mid-September.

Gliessman, 77, and his wife, Roberta Jaffe, 73, purchased their 5-acre property in 1992, now called Condor's Hope Vineyard. The couple retired from their Santa Cruz jobs and live in Cuyama full time where they dry farm grapes and olives and sell their wine to wine club members across California and local vendors.

SEA OF GREEN Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms grow 80 percent of the U.S. carrot market and pumped 28,000 acre-feet of groundwater out of the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin in 2022. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • SEA OF GREEN Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms grow 80 percent of the U.S. carrot market and pumped 28,000 acre-feet of groundwater out of the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin in 2022.

By dry farming, they use less than 2 acre-feet of water (about 652,000 gallons) per year, Jaffe said while sitting next to her husband. In contrast, agricultural corporations Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms pumped 28,500 acre-feet last year out of the same aquifer—enough to supply three cities the size of Santa Barbara with water for a year, according to Stand With Cuyama, a group of farmers now organizing a carrot boycott.

"We thought we're going to have our nice little farm, we're going to be away from everything, we're in the middle of nowhere, it'll be just really peaceful," Jaffe said. "Then the water issues started [getting] very serious."

A 2012 United States Geological Survey study that looked at the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin's conditions found that agriculture can't continue the way it has in the past, Jaffe said.

The Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin is one of the state's 21 critically overdrafted basins. California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) in 2014, which required Cuyama and its fellow overdrafted basin areas to form groundwater sustainability agencies and create plans to bring the basins back into balance.

After the state approved Cuyama's groundwater sustainability plan, which calls for a 60 percent reduction in groundwater use in 20 years, Bolthouse and Grimmway filed a groundwater rights lawsuit, aka adjudication, in August 2021 against all Cuyama landowners. They're currently still serving more than 300 residents. If residents fail to get an attorney and join the lawsuit, they risk losing their water rights altogether.

Bolthouse and Grimmway served Ella Boyajian and her husband, Tanner, shortly after they purchased their ranch in 2021.

"When we bought this property, there was lots of hope. We wanted to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas with our extended families," Boyajian said. "That dream is complicated when you factor the realities of water."

Boyajian, 35, grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and moved to Los Angeles to attend Loyola Marymount University, where she met Tanner. As time went on, the couple wanted to buy a rural property where their two girls (3 1/2, and 1 1/2 years old) could grow up.

"The lawsuit has complicated matters because I think there's a fear [of] will we have enough water rights after the adjudication to do the dreams we have on the property?" Boyajian said.

Since moving to Cuyama, she's had to play catch-up to learn about the water issues, like wrapping her arms around the beast of an adjudication. While she was sitting with her neighbors discussing the lawsuit, one had an idea: "We should boycott carrots," she recalled.

"We debated it amongst ourselves, the pros and cons, these farms grow more than carrots, but this could hurt carrots that aren't Grimmway and Bolthouse," Boyajian said. "Ultimately, we decided it was a bold message because they are 80 percent of the carrot market. They have lots of subsidiaries below them, chances are you're buying from one of them."

On July 30, Boyajian and her neighbors launched the boycott at the Buckhorn, where more than 150 people showed up and agreed to stop buying Bolthouse and Grimmway products, specifically carrots, and signed a petition to ask the corporations to drop the lawsuit.

Signs calling people to boycott Bolthouse and Grimmway now line Highway 166 and people's properties. Known as Stand With Cuyama, the boycott's Change.org petition had gained 7,644 signatures as of Oct. 11.

"We are thrilled with that because the valley is less than 2,000 people, and we'd like that momentum to continue and have more people learn about our struggle and the cause," Boyajian said. "If we could impact their sales in one specific area like carrots, if we could make an impact on that area, that could be leveraged to negotiate or talk to us because they might see that trend of sales decreasing."

STAND UP In the wake of a groundwater rights lawsuit in the Cuyama Valley, several landowners are boycotting Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms carrots and other products, encouraging people to sign a petition to join the boycott and ask the corporations to drop the lawsuit. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • Photo By Jayson Mellom
  • STAND UP In the wake of a groundwater rights lawsuit in the Cuyama Valley, several landowners are boycotting Bolthouse Farms and Grimmway Farms carrots and other products, encouraging people to sign a petition to join the boycott and ask the corporations to drop the lawsuit.

The Stand With Cuyama team is attending a local fundraiser in November and hoping to raise more money to support the boycott's efforts, she said. Eventually, Boyajian said, she'd like to host a larger in-person meeting to help delegate more tasks for the boycott and encourage people to shop locally and seasonally.

"We have gotten farther and farther away from eating what is seasonal and being patient with what we want. It's driving that corporate greed. They are looking out for themselves and their self-interests," she said. "These aren't companies committed to Cuyama and [staying] here long term. No way. They've got five to 10 years. They are figuring out how much they can squeeze out before the water's gone."

Representatives from Bolthouse and Grimmway didn't respond to New Times' requests for comment.

In the meantime, Cuyama's de minimis users, like Gliessman and Jaffe and Boyajian, who use 2 acre-feet or less per year, worry about the future of their farms as they face retirement and climate change.

While the groundwater sustainability plan calls for small reductions over time (5 to 6 percent), the basin is expected to be in overdraft for the next 20 years until it reaches sustainability—where water pumped out equals water replenished, Gliessman said. The water rights lawsuit calls for a judge to rule on how much water everyone can pump, creating a parallel track to SGMA.

"It's now a whole other process that's literally money-sucking, and our groundwater levels have not improved at all in this whole time period," Jaffe said.

However, many landowners don't know if the groundwater sustainability plan or SGMA will impact the adjudication.

"This is all uncharted territory for California water," Gliessman said. "Traditionally adjudications have been awarded on the basis of historical use. This is where we don't know what's going to happen. If it ends up being historical use, you know who's going to get the water: the ones who caused the overdraft in the first place."

Since adjudications typically take decades to resolve, many worry whether they can afford to stay in the lawsuit—but everyone is determined to keep going, Boyajian said.

"If you were a small-scale farmer and your water's reduced, that could be your livelihood," Boyajian said. "The only people making money are huge industrial farmers; everybody else is making enough to get by." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Taylor O'Connor, from New Times' sister paper, the Sun, at [email protected].

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