Up in the hills on an arid, remote farm in California, Lee Harrington carefully monitors the dripping of his pistachio trees to make sure they don’t waste any groundwater in the heat of battle.
He is one of dozens of farmers, ranchers and others living near the small town of Nuevo Cuyama who are fighting for groundwater pumping at Grimway Farms and Bolthouse Farms, two of the largest carrot growers in the United States. The right to file a lawsuit and be taken to court. .
The move has saddled residents of the community 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Los Angeles with mounting legal bills and prompted them to post large signs on the road urging others to resist the carrot and “stand with Cuyama.”
“It’s unbelievable where they’re farming,” Harrington said, adding that his legal fees exceeded $50,000. “They want our water. They don’t want the state telling them how much water they can pump.”
The fight in rural California represents a new wave of legal challenges over water, which has long been one of the most precious and contentious resources in the state, where much of the produce is grown.
For years, California did not regulate groundwater, allowing farmers and residents to drill wells to obtain water. Things changed in 2014 due to a historic drought and deeper wells causing the land to sink in some places.
A new state law requires communities to form local groundwater sustainability agencies responsible for developing plans for how to manage their watersheds in the future, which must be approved by the state. The most overdrafted watersheds, including the Cuyama watershed, were among the first to do so, with the goal of becoming sustainable by 2040. Other high- and medium-priority watersheds followed.
But disputes arose in Cuyama and elsewhere, triggering a series of lawsuits that took entire communities to court so property owners could defend their rights to the resources beneath their feet. In the Oxnard and Pleasant Valley basins, growers sued over a lack of consensus on water allocations. In San Diego County, a water district sued and reached a settlement about a year later.
It’s a preview of what could happen as more regions begin enacting stricter groundwater rules.
The lawsuit in Cuyama, which relies on groundwater for its water supply, has touched parts of the community, where cellphone service is spotty and people take pride in knowing their neighbors.
The school secretary doubles as a bus driver, and a vegetable grower provides a horseshoe repair service. There’s a small market, hardware store, a Western-themed boutique hotel, and miles of land growing olives, pistachios, grapes, and carrots.
From the beginning, Greenaway and Bolthouse have been involved in the development of local groundwater sustainability agencies and plans.
Their farms are in the most overdrafted areas of the basin, and both companies said they were following designated reduction plans. But they believe other farmers were given a pass, too, and want the court to work out a fairer solution that would reduce water pumping throughout the basin, not just on their land.
“I don’t want the aquifer to be dehydrated because then I’m just left with a piece of gravel and no water, which means it’s desert floor and has no value to anybody,” said Dan Clifford, vice president and general counsel. Dan Clifford said. Bolthouse Land Co. “What we want to achieve is watershed sustainability and understanding that you’re going to have a judge calling balls and strikes.”
Grimmway has been growing carrots in Cuyama for more than three decades and now grows less than a third of its 20 square miles (52 square kilometers) there, installing more efficient sprinklers to Save water. The company is starting to grow carrots in other states but has no plans to move out of Cuyama because of falling water tables and rising pumping costs, said Jeff Huckaby, the company’s president and CEO.
“This is one of the best areas we’ve come across for growing carrots,” Huckabee said, adding that dry areas are the best, so carrot roots extend underground to get moisture and grow longer. “The soil here is ideal, the temperature is ideal, the climate is ideal.”
California has always been the Wild West for water resources, but that’s changing. He said the company has reduced water use in Cuyama and hopes to do so for decades.
Before the lawsuit was filed, rancher Jake Furstenfeld, 42, said he thought the companies were working with people in the town, but no longer.
Furstenfeld, a member of the groundwater agency’s advisory committee, owns no land and no lawyer. But he is helping organize the boycott and passing out yard signs.
“It’s called David and Goliath,” he said.
Many residents worry about the water they need to brush their teeth, do their laundry and plant their gardens. The water district that serves households in the town says water rates are being increased to cover legal fees. The district is trying to stay afloat so its 185 students can attend school locally, but is saddled with unexpected legal bills.
“Without water, we don’t have schools,” said Superintendent and Principal Alfonso Gamino. “If the birdbath dries up, I can see Ballhouse and Greenaway going elsewhere, but what about the rest of us?”
Before the state’s groundwater law, most groundwater lawsuits were filed in Southern California, where development puts greater pressure on water resources. Legal experts now expect more cases to emerge in areas where farmers have been forced to cut back on pumping water.
“For the average person or small user, it’s devastating because people are necessarily not involved in the lawsuits,” said Eric Garner, a water rights attorney who practices California law. “For large pumps, hiring a lawyer is a cheaper option than replacing the water system.”
Most of the country’s carrots are grown in California, where consumers demand a year-round supply of the popular baby carrots. The state’s climate is ideal for growing carrots, one of California’s top ten agricultural products, valued at $1.1 billion last year, state statistics show.
Along the highway, Greenway’s fields are sprayed with sprinklers for eight hours and then left to dry for two weeks so the carrot roots stretch in search of moisture. Critics question the companies’ use of sprinklers during the day, but Huckabee said Grimway uses far less water than alfalfa growers who used to grow there.
The lawsuit, filed two years ago in Cuyama, had its first hearing in January. In the latest twist, Bolthouse Farms is asking to be withdrawn as a plaintiff, saying the company has no water rights as a tenant grower and plans to cut water use by 65% by 2040. The company that owns the land, Bolthouse Land Co., remains in litigation.
Jean Gaillard, another member of Cuyama’s advisory committee, sells produce from his garden to locals. He tried to conserve water by alternating rows of pumpkins between corn stalks and collecting rainwater on the roof of an old barn.
He said paying a lawyer to represent him instead of reinvesting in his produce business was problematic. Meanwhile, his well water has dropped 30 feet (9 meters) over the past two decades.
“We feel like we’re completely overwhelmed by these people,” Gaillard said. “They took all the water.”