Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
In the Cuyama Valley, Santa Barbara County, California, groundwater has been steadily mined for more than 60 years to support agriculture. An early phase during which more numerous, smaller farms grew alfalfa and truck crops was superseded in the 1980s by the more extensive production of organic vegetables, by a few very large farms. Aquifer depletion throughout California has created problems of arsenic in the water, subsidence, high pumping costs, and wells going dry. These problems resulted in the 2015 Sustainable Groundwater Mangement Act (SGMA), and a process in the Cuyama Groundwater Basin of measuring and managing groundwater depletion in order bring the Basin back into balance. This paper has two parts. First it deploys crisis theory in political ecology to portray the relations between irrigated agriculture, groundwater depletion and regulation. Second, it discusses how residents of the Cuyama Valley understand the crisis of irrigated agriculture and groundwater. Using ethnography and enumerative data from a survey of 320 households, I outline the contours of popular perceptions of the quiet catastrophe wrought in Cuyama and the promise of recuperation offered by SGMA. Gramsci’s concept of “contradictory consciousness” is useful for understanding dissonant views of property, nature and community: issues that are central to imagining the end of this small world of irrigated agriculture and the emergence of something else once the aquifers have bottomed out.