Op-Ed

Op-Ed

Water adjuducation -- the nuclear option

By Alasdair Coyne
Thousands of residents of the Ventura River Basin had recently to sign for a package in the mail regarding the commencement of adjudication proceedings on their groundwater supplies.
This all began in 2014 when Santa Barbara Channelkeeper (an environmental organization long involved in water-quality issues in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties), sued the city of Ventura to prevent the city’s over-pumping of water near Foster Park by Casitas Springs. The lawsuit’s goal is to ensure that enough water remains in the lower Ventura River for riparian and aquatic species, including the federally designated endangered Southern California steelhead.
Watershed adjudications take a long, long time and their outcomes are impossible to predict. Thus the interest expressed by some major water purveyors (like the city of Ventura, Casitas Municipal Water District, Ventura River Water District and Meiners Oaks Water District) in pursuing a court-sanctioned settlement agreement. Negotiations on a settlement have begun, and could avert the need for a lengthy basinwide adjudication.
A number of other recent state efforts may figure into either the adjudication or the settlement agreement. California passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), requiring local water agencies to develop groundwater management plans by 2022, to ensure that groundwater basins are managed to protect all beneficial users of that water, including fish and riparian species and habitat, from unsustainable over-pumping. Management plans for the Ventura and Ojai basins are already in preparation. The state is also engaged in two current water studies of the Ventura River.
The California Department of Fish & Wildlife will provide instream flow recommendations for steelhead in the Ventura River. The results of this study will be released soon. The State Water Resources Control Board is developing a groundwater/surface water flow model, to determine the relationship between groundwater extraction and streamflows in the Ventura River. The results will be published next year. 
On the local level, the Ventura County Watershed Protection District (in collaboration with local, state, and federal agencies) is working to remove Matilija Dam. This effort will improve aquatic and terrestrial habitat along Matilija Creek and the Ventura River, restore natural beach sand replenishment, restore fish passage to the headwaters of the Ventura River, and enhance recreational opportunities along the river. These efforts are being complimented by non-governmental proposals such as those by the Friends of the Ventura River and the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy to create the Ventura River Parkway, a trail from the headwaters down to the ocean. Altogether, tens of millions of dollars will be dedicated to these watershed enhancements.
The watershed adjudication process, initiated by the Ventura City Council, could threaten or at least complicate all these efforts. There are a number of unanswered questions about how this adjudication process relates to SGMA, or the other river-related studies and plans.
Adjudication requires all water users in the basin — which extends from the Upper Ojai, the East End of Ojai and Matilija Canyon, on down to the Ventura River’s estuary next to the fairgrounds — to defend their water use before the court, and may lock in the amount used, long into the future. The city of Ventura has hired one of the biggest water law firms in the state, Best Best & Krieger. This firm has hundreds of experienced water attorneys at their disposal. Any water user without legal representation before the court risks having their water use undefended. If a water user is served by a public water purveyor, such as Casitas Municipal Water District, Meiners Oaks Water District or the Ventura River Water District, they should contact their purveyor to learn what they are doing to protect their water rights.
Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere published an opinion piece in the Jan. 10 Ojai Valley News, giving the impression that getting all the basin’s water users together is really the best way forward. There was no mention of the enormous sums of money to be required of all parties for attorneys, over decades. No mention of water bills rising to meet these expenses. No mention of adjudication over-riding environmental efforts to improve the watershed. No mention of the extensive local, state and federal efforts to protect and restore the natural resources — and related recreational opportunities — of the Ventura River for present and future generations.
LaVere is positioned to be the next county supervisor a year from now representing the Ojai Valley and Ventura area, running in the March 3 election against one opponent on the ballot with negligible resources and, as of this week, a write-in candidate. He would replace Supervisor Steve Bennett, a strong supporter of environmental protection. 
This pending adjudication is breaking new ground. It is the first major adjudication since California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was signed into law, and the first since state lawmakers approved two additional pieces of legislation intended to integrate adjudications with the recent statewide Sustainable Groundwater Management Act process (these are SB 226 and AB 1390).
Everyone who depends upon or enjoys the waters of the Ventura River, whether for drinking water, irrigation, or river-related recreation should keep apprised of both the adjudication process — and the settlement agreement — that is currently under way as a result of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s lawsuit.

 

— Alasdair Coyne of Upper Ojai heads Keep Sespe Wild Committee.