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The Santa Barbara County Planning Commission voted Wednesday against a proposed project that would construct three water storage reservoirs on former University land holdings in central California.
The commission voted 3-1 against the project after local California farmers and Harvard affiliates denounced the project and voiced concerns during the meeting about environmental impacts that could arise from building the reservoirs. The project would be distributed across a 6,500-acre project site, and each reservoir would cover an area of five acres and store 45 acre-feet of water.
California farmers said during the meeting that the project would pose a serious risk to the water supply in the region. The area is located in a critically overdrafted groundwater basin, according to Roberta “Robbie” Jaffe, a local farmer who is the co-owner of Condor’s Hope Vineyard.
“The reservoirs would have pulled out potentially millions of gallons of water in one year,” Jaffe said. “There are lots of shallow wells around there for residences and cattle, and it would have eventually, over time, just really decimated all of that.”
The project site is part of more than 7,500 acres of vineyard land previously controlled by the Harvard Management Company, which oversees the University’s $50.9 billion endowment. In 2014, Brodiaea Inc. — a Delaware-based company fully owned by HMC at the time — purchased the vineyard land for $10.1 million dollars.
In 2020, HMC spun out its natural resources team — including its ownership of Brodiaea — to a new investment management firm, Solum Partners. HMC remains a limited partner in Solum Partners, meaning the vineyard land is still indirectly part of Harvard’s endowment, though the University’s investment arm retains little involvement in the day-to-day operations of Solum or Brodiaea.
Hannah Weinronk, a staff member at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, said during the meeting that Harvard “has a track record of selling their land investments when it’s advantageous to them, no matter the effects on the community it has invested in.”
“I ask that the commission please vote in opposition of the permit application, which will only give control of water to a corporate entity at the expense of water rights and farmers’ livelihoods in the Cuyama Valley,” Weinronk said.
Kelsey Ichikawa ’20, who also attended the meeting, said there were “deep contradictions” between Harvard’s academic emphasis on climate and sustainability research while also maintaining investments in natural resources.
“It saddens me that’s also happening in California where I grew up and where my family still lives,” she said. “I’m asking you to push back against this external investor who, let’s be honest, is not accountable to your constituents and is not accountable to the public good.”
HMC spokesperson Patrick S. McKiernan declined to comment, citing a company policy against commenting on individual investments.
The planning commission’s vote on Wednesday to deny the project was only tentative, as the Santa Barbara County Development Review Division must now produce a report with findings for denial of the project. Brodiaea, however, will still be able to appeal the final vote to the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors.
Correction: March 30, 2023
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Hannah Weinronk.
—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.
—Staff writer Claire Yuan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @claireyuan33.
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