Amid rising tensions across Santa Barbara County over the concentration of proposed cannabis operations, a grower in the Cuyama Valley has reached a unique compromise with community members that will satisfy water conservation interests while bringing cannabis to the region.
The cannabis operation, known as the Suarez Project by Cuyama Farms LLC, proposes a 35-acre site in the Cuyama Valley near Foothill Road. The operation would grow cannabis under hoop structures on a plot of land where none is currently being grown.
The project went before the Board of Supervisors Tuesday for an appeal hearing, which ended in unanimous approval of the proposed project.
The project appellant, Cuyama farmer Jean Gaillard, voiced initial opposition to the project based on the potential impact on the Cuyama Groundwater Basin. According to Marc Chytilo, the attorney representing Mr. Gaillard, the basin is the most overdrafted groundwater basin in the county.
With this in mind, Mr. Gaillard, alongside a number of farmers in the valley, were concerned the approval of a cannabis project would further exacerbate the ongoing water challenges farmers are facing in Cuyama.
“When cannabis proposals started to come in Cuyama, where unirrigated lands were being proposed for new irrigation for cannabis, it was clear that there needed to be additional precautions to ensure the cannabis industry would not exacerbate and worsen the groundwater overdraft in the basin,” Mr. Chytilo told supervisors on behalf of the appellant Tuesday.
While appellants and applicants typically come to supervisors to give the final word on cannabis projects, Tuesday’s hearing was different.
Prior to the hearing, Suarez Project growers and the Cuyama Valley Cannabis Advisory Committee agreed on the terms of a core set of guidelines that outlines specific measures for preserving the long-term viability of the groundwater basin.
The guidelines instruct cannabis growers to provide the committee with a project description, hydrological evaluation and other technical documents before meeting with the committee to discuss the proposed project. In addition, the committee requires growers to offset 100% of water use — meaning they must not use any new water from the basin for the project.
A cannabis grower could do this, for example, by paying a local farmer to cease irrigation of part of their land to offset the water use for cannabis growth.
The growers involved in the Suarez Project agreed to these terms, reaching a compromise with the concerned citizens in Cuyama.
Amy Steinfeld, a representative of Cuyama Farms LLC, told supervisors Tuesday that she hoped the guidelines created by the advisory committee would serve as a model for future growers proposing projects in Cuyama. She requested that the supervisors approve the project and institute the new guidelines.
“The Suarez applicants are looking forward to being great neighbors, to developing a sustainable cannabis farm with very efficient irrigation practices and continuing to support the residents and other farmers in the valley,” Ms. Steinfeld said.
Roberta Jaffe, a farmer and member of the Cuyama Valley Cannabis Advisory Committee, said the committee’s guidelines aim to bring the groundwater basin into sustainability by 2040. She told supervisors that in the future, the committee will continue to appeal proposed cannabis projects unless they comply with the new set of guidelines.
“While the Cuyama Valley Community is small in number, we are persistent,” Ms. Jaffe said. “We will continue to step up to protect the Cuyama Basin and our communities.”
During the board’s deliberations, Supervisor Das Williams, who oversees the district where the project is located, said the cannabis operation could shrink some smaller farm operations, but also bring new jobs and income to the area.
“Marijuna could either be a really good thing or a really bad thing for the community,” Mr. Williams said. “And I think this agreement goes a long way to making sure that it becomes a good thing. Making sure that the water usage is mitigated, that’s a step that farmers in other areas are not yet required to do, and that already will set marijuana at a higher standard than the other crops — a higher standard of community benefit.”
For future cannabis projects proposed in Cuyama, the county’s Planning and Development will inform applicants of the guidelines put in place by the advisory committee.