On a split vote Feb. 5, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors conceptually decided a full environmental impact report must be prepared for the construction of three ponds to provide frost protection for vineyards planted in 2016 in the Cuyama Valley.
In a 3-2 decision, supervisors denied the project applicant’s appeal of a Planning Commission decision to require a full EIR, with the dissenting votes cast by 4th District Supervisor Peter Adam and board chairman Steve Lavagnino, whose 5th District includes the project site.
The majority opinion was that, although agriculture-related projects are generally exempt from California Environmental Quality Act provisions, the severe overdraft of the Cuyama Valley aquifer, the potential for harm to native plants and animals and Caltrans’ concern that a pond failure could flood Highway 166 were enough to warrant an EIR.
In the minority opinion, the ponds were well-engineered to prevent failure, the ponds would have less environmental impacts than the existing vineyards, and the decision to require an EIR on an exempt agricultural project will set a precedent that other future agriculture pond projects will be subjected to.
The issue is tentatively scheduled to return to the board at the March 5 meeting so supervisors can adopt the findings necessary to require a full EIR.
Once an EIR is completed, it will go before the Planning Commission for review and approval.
The case involves the North Fork Ranch’s request to construct three water storage reservoirs on a 6,565-acre agriculturally zoned parcel planted with about 800 acres of vineyards south of Highway 166 about 9 miles west of New Cuyama.
Each reservoir would hold approximately 49 acre-feet of water primarily to provide frost protection for the grapevines from February through April but would also be used for irrigation when needed.
Water wells were drilled and pipelines and irrigation systems were installed on the parcel in 2014 and 2015, with the vineyards planted in early 2016, according to a Planning and Development Department staff report.
Last September, the zoning administrator approved a minor conditional use permit for construction of the ponds along with a mitigated negative environmental declaration that addressed biological, cultural and water resources, flooding and geologic processes.
The approval was appealed by Roberta Jaffe and Stephen Gliessman, citing concerns about pumping water from the most severely overdrafted groundwater basin in the state, evaporative losses from the ponds as well as from water sprayed on the vineyards for frost protection and impacts on the area’s flora and fauna.
The mitigated negative declaration said the combined evaporation from the ponds would be less than the 31 acre-feet threshold for having a significant impact on the groundwater basin.
But appellants and supporters said if water lost to evaporation from water being sprayed for frost protection were added to that lost from the ponds, it would exceed 31 acre-feet.
In a public hearing on the appeal, the County Planning Commission voted 3-2 that the mitigated negative declaration was inadequate and an EIR is required, focused on water use, biological impacts and the potential for a collapsed pond to flood Highway 166.
That decision was subsequently appealed by project applicant Matt Turrentine, of Brodiaea, which brought the issue to the Board of Supervisors.
In his appeal, Turrentine pointed out vineyards and cultivated agriculture are exempt from county permits and CEQA and claimed the mitigated negative declaration adequately addressed evaporative water loss and impacts on biological resources.
He also asserted no additional evaluation of slope failure is required because the ponds comply with county grading requirements, exterior slopes of the containment berms will be vegetated and upstream runoff will be diverted around the reservoirs.
Supervisor Das Williams, whose 1st District includes part of the Cuyama Valley, although not the area where the project is proposed, asked whether the question was total evaporation from the project or evaporation from the frost protection.
“I think that really is the central issue,” said Dianne Black, director of the Planning and Development Department. “The board must decide.”
Supervisors who voted to reject Turrentine’s appeal relied, in part, on CEQA guidelines that say if substantial evidence is presented indicating a project may have a significant effect on the environment, a lead agency must prepare an EIR, even if other substantial evidence indicates it will not have a significant impact.
“We should not go lightly into a route like (requiring an EIR),” said Williams, who eventually moved to require the EIR.
“This is a really tough call,” he said, adding there are “dueling experts” on some of the issues his office and Lavagnino’s have been wrestling with for two years.
“My viewpoint is it is hard to tell who is right here,” Williams said. “That’s when I look at … the substantial evidence test.”
Third District Supervisor Joan Hartmann, who seconded Williams’ motion, pointed out the groundwater basin is in serious overdraft, “so I think we have to look at this carefully.”
“If there (are) potential impacts, and I think there are, then I think we need an EIR,” she said.
Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said because of the specific site, a full EIR is needed.
“It’s this project in this moment in this place,” he said.
But Adam asked fellow supervisors to think about the ramifications of requiring a full EIR.
“If that’s what the new rules are, you’re opening up every crop field to be included in every bathroom addition,” he said. “This vineyard exists. If you go beyond the scope of the project as it currently exists and ask what else they have on the property, that’s opening up a can of worms.”
Lavagnino commented on the wide range of potential problems from the project brought up by public speakers, who were also split on the issue.
“It’s interesting to me the applicant is basically being blamed for everything sort of cancer,” he said, pointing out that the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires the development of a plan for managing the Cuyama Valley aquifer that may require North Fork Ranch to reduce the number of acres planted in vineyards.
“An EIR, for me — I don’t think it’s the right tool,” Lavagnino said. “By the time we get it done, we’ll already have a plan on how water can be used in the Cuyama basin.”
He added, “If we do this, regardless of what they’re saying in the audience, this is precedent setting.”
Williams disagreed: “The precedent is not that an EIR is required; the precedent in this case is evaporation from irrigation goes beyond use.”