The county’s most depleted water basin, the Cuyama Valley, is fast becoming the latest battleground in the fight over how – and whether – to address the negative impacts of the cannabis industry on farming and residential communities.
The giant groundwater basin underlying this sparsely populated, heavily farmed valley is one of California’s 21 most critically over-drafted basins. For 75 years, the Cuyama Valley has been a mecca for water-intensive farming on an industrial scale – first, alfalfa, and now, carrots.
Now there’s a newcomer on the block. More than 740 acres of outdoor cannabis cultivation has been proposed for the Cuyama Valley and is under review for zoning permits, county planners say. The industry is poised to drop new straws into the declining basin.
It’s the first time that a precious resource is at the heart of the conflict over marijuana in what some are calling “Canna” Barbara County. On the South Coast, Carpinterians are clamoring for stronger regulation of the cannabis greenhouses that are stinking up their neighborhoods. In the Sta. Rita Hills wine region between Buellton and Lompoc, vintners are demanding curbs on smelly outdoor grows.
To comply with state law, studies show, pumping in the Cuyama Valley may have to be reduced by as much as two-thirds by 2040. That’s because, most years, twice as much water is pumped out of the basin as is replenished by rain – a formula for a Dust Bowl.
These days, valley farms up for sale are being advertised as “cannabis-zoned land.” But the water-guzzling carrot fields run by two major corporations are seemingly not for sale or lease.
Most of the cannabis grows are being proposed for foothill grazing land or unplowed land that is not presently being irrigated. And that worries conservationists, who fear that cannabis will further deplete the water supply and undermine smaller-scale farms.
“There seems to be little respect for the Cuyama Valley and for dealing with the really severe water issues and the fact that there are people living there,” said Roberta Jaffe, who grows wine grapes and olives on 5 acres in Cottonwood Canyon. “We’d like to see projects on irrigated land that would actually reduce the amount of water use on that land.”
Jaffe serves on an advisory committee that was convened two months ago by county supervisors Das Williams and Steve Lavagnino to draw up a list of voluntary water use guidelines for the industry – most notably, how to set up water offsets, or transfers. These could include paying farmers to fallow land or replace their sprinklers with driplines.
The growers view cannabis as a “net benefit” for the Cuyama Valley; they say it will reduce the overall water use and generate jobs. They estimate that cannabis may use half as much water as alfalfa or carrots.
“Moe & Moe”
The water question came to a head on March 31, when the county Planning Commission unanimously approved a proposal for 35 acres of cannabis in hoop-houses on grazing land at 2225 Foothill Road. That’s within a stone’s throw of the carrot fields in the valley flatlands, where the water levels in irrigation wells are dropping as much as 8 feet per year.
The applicants, Moe Essa and Moe Jawad, aka “Moe and Moe,” are partners in real estate development in the Central Valley and residents of Fresno and Merced, respectively. They plan to process their Cuyama Valley cannabis at an industrial park they hope to build in Woodlake, California.
Doing business as “Cuyama Farms,” Essa and Jawad have submitted applications for 133 acres of cannabis cultivation in the Cuyama Valley, and they share a seat on the county’s advisory committee.
Essa and Jawad estimate that their 35-acre project on Foothill will need 104 acre-feet of water per year. For context, that’s enough water to supply three-quarters of the town of New Cuyama, population 700.
At the same time, the two growers are proposing to voluntarily offset their projected new water use on a one-to-one ratio. They have entered into a contract to pay a farmer in Ventucopa, more than 5 miles away, to fallow 28 acres of alfalfa, cutting his water use by at least 104 acre-feet per year.
“If you grow up in the Central Valley, you have empathy for the water situation,” Essa said. “This is a strong commitment from us.”
Still, some Cuyama Valley farmers are dreading the coming influx of cannabis; they view the water offset for Essa and Jawad as bad precedent, and they wonder whether the advisory committee is a waste of time.
On Monday, Jean Gaillard, the owner of Cuyama Homegrown, a 1-acre vegetable farm at 1381 Foothill, 1.5 miles west of Essa and Jawad’s proposed cannabis farm, filed an appeal, asking the county Board of Supervisors to overturn the commission’s decision and deny the Cuyama Farms project.
Gaillard noted that Essa and Jawad plan to drill a new well 1,200 feet deep, while his own well is only 500 feet deep. The proposed offset with the Ventucopa farmer, he said, is undemocratic and shortcuts local efforts to reduce pumping.
“If you want to come here, you have to play fair with everybody,” Gaillard said. “My water well level is already dropping 2 feet per year, and there’s no cannabis. In terms of us little growers, we already know we’re going to struggle in the future because we might be subject to water pumping restrictions.”
At the very least, Gaillard said, the commission should have delayed a decision on the permit for a couple of months, until the advisory committee could agree on some guidelines.
At the March 31 hearing, the commissioners said that water regulation in the valley was best left to the local groundwater agency that will oversee future pumping reductions. They noted that Essa and Jawad had the right to grow alfalfa or carrots without permits.
“Things are changing in Cuyama,” said commission Chairman Larry Ferini, a Santa Maria strawberry farmer. “None of us really like change. A water exchange of one-to-one is just amazing. I hold the applicants in high regard for just doing that, without being asked.”
Knocking on doors
Paying for offsets, conservationists say, would work best if the cannabis crop and the crop to be fallowed are in the same part of the Cuyama basin – not miles away from a new cannabis well, as Essa and Jawad are proposing.
The two growers said their agents knocked on a lot of doors, trying to find a closer partner for water offsets. But they didn’t find any takers.
“That doesn’t mean we’re giving up,” Essa said.
Essa added that he did not “at all” view his critics as his opponents.
“The opposition usually wants us to leave town,” he said, adding that, in the Cuyama Valley, “We’re kind of working with each other.”
But conservationists insist that water transfers should be larger than what the partners are proposing, given the enormity of the basin overdraft.
“How can a one-to-one offset for a new operation make any progress?” asked Brenton Kelly, watershed advocacy director for Quail Springs Permaculture, an educational farm near Ventucopa.
“It should be one-to-one-and-a-half, not just bringing in a new use and playing with ‘paper’ water,” Kelly said. “When can we get beyond the ‘Department of Do No Worse’? We know we may have to be cutting back by 67 percent.”
Melinda Burns volunteers as a freelance journalist in Santa Barbara as a community service; she offers her news reports to multiple local publications, at the same time, for free