By Daryl Kelley
One of the Ojai Valley’s driest winters in recorded history has prompted its principal ater agency to begin planning for a prolonged drought and to start a $150 rebate program for replacement of old, water-wasting clothes washers and toilets.
“This could be the driest year since 1877 and the second driest in our records, which began in 1867,” said Ron Merckling, spokesman for Casitas Municipal Water District.
Just 7.38 inches of rain has fallen at Casitas Dam since the rainfall year began in October, and with very little rain usually falling after April, Merckling said this year could be a troubling near-record setter.
This year’s rainfall compares with 7.12 inches in the same area in 1877 and 8.77 in 1960-61, the lowest in recent history.
Even during Southern California’s most recent lengthy drought, from 1986-1991, rainfall at Lake Casitas never dropped below 9.46 inches in a year, records show.
As a result, the Oak View-based water agency has diverted no water from the Ventura River for storage in Lake Casitas this year. “We have a dry canal,” Merckling said.
And unlike most of the rest of the region, which receives water by canal from the high mountains of Northern California, the Ojai Valley is dependent on local water from wells or storage at Lake Casitas.
“We’re concerned … And we’re planning a drought consciousness effort because of the potential for a prolonged drought,” Merckling said. Scientists have recently predicted a continuing drought for the West because of climate change.
“It’s important for all of us to start now with water conservation,” he said, “because at the end of a drought the water will diminish very rapidly.”
In just the last two years, and despite an average rainfall year in 2006, water stored behind Casitas Dam has dropped more than 8 percent, from 250,656 acre-feet to 229,735, records show. Casitas Reservoir is still about 90 percent full, but Merckling noted that declines accelerate sharply if dry years repeat.
For example, the reservoir, which filled to overflowing at 256,000 acre feet after the big rains of 1998, had dropped to about 180,000 by 2004. And during the late 1980s, the reservoir fell from nearly full in 1986 to about 152,000 acre-feet in 1991.
Lake Casitas was built so large as a hedge against long-term drought. But Merckling said agency projections now show an annual deficit of 360 acre-feet between what goes into the lake and what is taken out during dry periods.
An acre-foot of water is 43,560 cubic feet, or the quantity that would cover an acre 1 foot deep. An acre-foot supplies the needs of two families for a year in an urban setting, or one family in a rural setting, where more water is used on irrigation.
A water shortfall would have an impact not just on residents and farmers served directly by Casitas, Merckling said, but on customers of 16 other local agencies to which Casitas sells water, including the Golden State Water Company in Ojai, the Meiners Oaks County Water District, the Ventura County Water District and the city of Ventura.
In all, the district provides water for about 65,000 people and nearly 5,700 acres of farmland in the Ojai Valley and Ventura.
“The water district needs to work together with the community to conserve water,” Merckling said. “We’re one of the few districts in Southern California (to be so vulnerable), because we rely on local water.”
Casitas has begun offering rebates for old clothes washers and toilets, kicking back $150 toward the purchase of highly efficient ones. A $100 rebate is also available on low-flush toilets, which use 1.6 gallons per flush compared with 1.2 gallons for the high efficiency models.
Casitas already had provided free shower heads and faucet aerators and free toilet flappers.
It is also considering rebates to encourage purchase of weather-based irrigation control systems, which would adjust irrigation depending on rain and wind.
“That could drastically reduce consumption,” Merckling said.
To save more water, local farmers are also being encouraged to participate this summer in an Agricultural Water Audit Program, sponsored by Casitas and a U.S. Bureau of Reclamation grant. Irrigation efficiency will be tested and improvements recommended.