An application to construct three ponds that would hold water to be used for protecting grape vines from frost in Cuyama Valley was rejected Wednesday by the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission.
Commissioners said they could not make the required findings for approval of the project.
But staff did not have findings for denial prepared, and the commission voted 4-0 to direct staff to return with the appropriate findings at the May 10 meeting, when the final vote rejecting the conditional use permit is expected.
Fifth District Commissioner Vincent Martinez recused himself at the outset of the hearing because, he said, he has prior and current litigation experience with the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin.
Brodiaea Inc. sought the conditional use permit for three water storage ponds on a 6,565-acre parcel located south of Highway 166 between Cottonwood Canyon and Schoolhouse Canyon roads about nine miles west of New Cuyama.
A County Planning and Development Department staff report said the three ponds would each store about 45 acre-feet of water pumped from the groundwater basin and used in an existing water-spray frost protection system for about 840 acres of grape vines at North Fork Vineyards.
An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough to meet the average yearly water needs of about six people in most urban settings.
Currently, the company is pumping water into the system directly from the groundwater basin, which is designated in critical overdraft by more than 28,000 acre-feet per year.
The county’s adopted threshold for a significant impact on the Cuyama aquifer is 31 acre-feet per year.
County policy also provides a right to farm and to pump water to irrigate agriculture and thus is not subject to discretionary permit evaluation, but the water that would evaporate from the frost protection system would be subject to California Environmental Quality Act guidelines.
As a result, the environmental impact report only provided mitigation measures to get the amount of evaporation from the system down to below 31 acre-feet.
Fourth District Commissioner Larry Ferini, who is a farmer, voiced concerns about why restrictions were being placed on the water use for an agriculture project when county ordinances essentially granted farmers the right to use unlimited water.
“I believe it is a waste of a resource, at this point … to put restrictions on how the grower uses the water,” he said.
Ferini argued the beneficial use of the water is the crop and said there was no hydrological data on where the impacts from the wells would be, and he was inclined to follow the staff recommendation to approve the permit.
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“I am troubled by the discussion of wind machines,” said Chairman and 3rd District Commissioner John Parke, who questioned why they weren’t considered as an alternative for the project and in the EIR.
Representing the applicant, Brian Tetley of Rural Planning Services, said spraying water “is by far the most commonly used frost protection method for decades in local and statewide for vineyards because it’s most effective in providing that blanket to the young buds against frost … especially for vineyards this size.”
“I mean, the scale is larger than most vineyards that we see locally, and so it really drives the method that was chosen for frost protection,” Tetley said.
The project was opposed by all of the 25 members of the public who spoke, including neighboring growers and ranchers — one whose family has been there since 1912 — a policy analyst, a professor, an ag researcher and several law students and graduates of Harvard.
In addition to the project pumping water from a critically overdrafted aquifer, opponents also objected to the vineyard owners not exclusively using wind machines as a more environmentally safe alternative.
Several said the mitigation measures to keep evaporation under 31 acre-feet a year would not provide the project with enough water for effective frost protection, which would require also using wind machines.
The Harvard students and graduates said Brodiaea is one of numerous wholly owned subsidiaries of Harvard Management Corp., which handles the university’s endowment, and claimed such “shell corporations” conduct land and water grabs while keeping the university at arm’s length from those operations.
Second District Commissioner Laura Bridley said there was no evidence of who Brodiaea is but was troubled by other issues.
“I’m uncomfortable with how hard we had to work to get the mitigations just under that 31 [acre-feet],” Bridley said.
Commissioner C. Michael Cooney, whose 1st District encompasses the project site, said he couldn’t make a decision based on the Harvard students’ testimony.
“However, I do listen to those who are directly impacted by the proposal of the manner in which these grape orchards are to be protected [from] frost,” Cooney said. “These are people who live the agriculture of Cuyama Valley.”
He said he wasn’t convinced 31 acre-feet was the appropriate threshold of significance and whether it was adequate to mitigate everyone’s concerns.
But in the end, Cooney, Bridley and Parke said they couldn’t make the findings to support approval of the permit, and Ferini ended up voting with the majority.