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Groundwater lawsuit leads to carrot boycott


A struggle over water rights has led to a carrot boycott in California’s Cuyama Valley north of Santa Barbara.

The cause of contention is groundwater rights. Groundwater is the only source of water available in the region, and its aquifers are being rapidly drained. Wells have had to be sunk to 680 feet below the surface to gain access to the water, reports The Los Angeles Times.

Headshot of Richard Smoley

Signs reading “BOYCOTT CARROTS” and “STAND WITH CUYAMA AGAINST CORPORATE GREED” are aimed at the region’s two largest growers, Grimmway Farms BB #:112956 and Bolthouse Farms BB #:111358, which specialize in carrots and are by far the largest water users in the area.

Hence the boycott.

The outrage started when these two companies, along with several other allied entities, sued “all persons claiming a right to extract or store groundwater in the Cuyama Valley groundwater water basin” so that a court could determine how much water each entity can pump.

For some reason (such as staggering legal bills), this action infuriated small growers, ranchers, and other property owners in the vicinity. Consequently, Grimmway and Bolthouse have removed themselves as plaintiffs. As a Grimmway statement put it:

“Our intention with the adjudication was to ensure an equitable allocation of water basin-wide to protect the groundwater rights of all users, including small pumpers and the Cuyama Community Services District. It has become clear, however, that many do not support the adjudication and the goodwill and cooperation that has defined our farming and relationships in the Cuyama Valley for so many years is significantly compromised.”

Consequently, the large growers have removed themselves as plaintiffs. Other plaintiffs, including Bolthouse Land Company (which split from Bolthouse Farms in 2005 but leases land to it) are continuing the suit.

“Grimmway Farms’ intention in joining the adjudication was to ensure an equitable allocation of water basin-wide, to protect the groundwater rights of all users, including small pumpers and the Cuyama Community Services District, while meeting SGMA’s sustainability objectives,” said the company’s statement.

The most startling part of the statement: “The adjudication process has been streamlined and as recognized under SGMA, is the proper vehicle to achieve these goals.”

SGMA is the State Groundwater Management Act, enacted in 2014 to address groundwater depletion statewide.

The Grimmway statement implies that filing suit in court is “the proper vehicle” for allocating groundwater regionally. Since SGMA applies statewide, this would mean that practically all areas suffering from groundwater depletion would have to go to court to hash out their rights.

This is happening. Landowners have filed four similar suits in Ventura County and Ridgecrest.  

SGMA was deliberately framed to ensure local control of groundwater preservation efforts, creating groundwater management districts. But calculating (much less allocating) groundwater requires more sophistication than many districts have.

As a result, many local groundwater sustainability plans were “assessed to be incomplete or inadequate,” observes Caitlin Peterson, associate center director and research fellow for the Water Policy Center of the Public Policy Institute of California. Consequently, the state Department of Water Resources has had to step in and fix the plans, which, Peterson observes, “was intended to be the last resort.”

These actions appear to be harbingers of the future: many more such suits are likely to come as a result of SGMA.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Tristan Zannon, a Cuyama pistachio grower, as saying, “It’s a good time to be a water lawyer. This is the beginning of the water wars.”

Perhaps not the beginning exactly, but the start of another battle in a century-long conflict.


Richard Smoley, contributing editor for Blue Book Services, Inc., has more than 40 years of experience in magazine writing and editing, and is the former managing editor of California Farmer magazine. A graduate of Harvard and Oxford universities, he has published 12 books.