Enviro lawsuit challenges Ojai water system — for good?

A week or so ago I had the opportunity to write a story about a monster lawsuit filed against the City of Ventura, which allegedly is taking so much water from the Ventura River that it's threatening the endangered steelhead trout. The story for the Ojai Valley News began this way:

Last September, an environmental group filed suit against the city of Ventura for harming the Ventura River watershed, which includes lands in and around Ojai, by taking an excessive amount of water from the river.

The suit charges that the city diverted and pumped too much water from its century-old submerged dam and from pumps at Foster Park near Casitas Springs.  

The group, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, has long tasked itself with supporting the coastal waters such as the Ventura River, including the steelhead trout that once thronged it. It argues in its suit that the city harms the public trust by using so much water that the river dries in the summer.

This is a potential violation of the Article 10 of the California constitution, which requires that the water resources of the state be put to the fullest possible “beneficial use, of the people and for the public welfare.” 

The story went on to say that the city of Ventura responded with a "cross-claim," or counter-suit, filed against water agencies throughout the Ojai Valley, with the potential of filing more lawsuits against individual well owners, such as farmers, too. (This did not make the city popular with those agencies.)

That's interesting on a local level, but more interesting on a regional level, arguably, is the fact that this 700-page lawsuit could potentially mean a restructuring of water useage throughout the watershed. This turns out to have been the result of a big lawsuit years ago filed re: the Santa Ana River (from Riverside into Orange County) which, for complex legal and physical reasons, has become a model for water use and reuse in Southern California, as discussed in a recent story in the Los Angeles Times

The news here? The LA Times story had a "the sky is not falling headline!"

National headlines ask: "The End of California?" News stories track the diminishing snowpack and disappearing reservoirs, and a small fish in the Delta is scapegoated, almond growers and consumers are shamed and the mythology of Western resolve is questioned.

The crisis has led many to wonder whether the state has lost its historic resilience.

But the drama hides reality and for those who have studied California's long relationship with its water, the drought is serious but hardly a disaster.

"The sky is not falling," said Jeffrey Mount, senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

"We shouldn't be complacent, but we don't need to be panicking," said Jay Lund, director for the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. "Look at Mediterranean climates around the world — look at how many people they support, the economy they support, the agriculture they support — and you'll see that California does better than anyone else.

"If people are just now understanding that California can be a dry place," Lund said, "then we must have been doing something right in terms of urban water delivery."

The legacy of this drought, Californians deeply involved in water issues say, is that the state will adjust, as it always has following a dry period, and this time the adjustment will mean managing water across the state much like the Santa Ana River is managed.

What's interesting is that it took a lawsuit filed by a big agency — for Orange County — to create a new solution that led to an entirely new system for treating water, and unexpected benefits. 

The calamity that created the Santa Ana River Watershed Project Authority took place in a courtroom over the course of six years.

In 1963, the Orange County Water District, having measured a diminished flow of water in the Santa Ana River, filed a lawsuit against other districts upstream that had increased their diversions.

About 4,000 parties were named, and after the settlement in 1969, the four major water districts in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties decided to create an agency to settle their disputes. It would be less expensive than going back to court.

Further, this new legal entity made possible a host of new physical realities, which led to the resuse of water in a way that had not been possible before. Including "indirect potable reuse," aka "toilet to tap," which has been a huge success in, of all places, Orange County, as detailed in a recent NYTimes story

But for the purposes of this story, what matters is the suit that led to the big change in the first place. 

"If every drop counts, then you have to count every drop, and the state has been stunningly sloppy about how it measures water," [Jeff] Mount said. "One element of conservation is good accounting."

By counting every drop, the agency tracks how water is used throughout the watershed, and by tracking its use, the agency can ensure that the water is clean and safe to be used multiple times.

With its large reach, the agency can pull in funds from bonds, loan programs and the member districts, allowing them to develop an array of water sources they couldn't approach individually.

In addition, the water authority has helped develop new forest management policies in the San Bernardino Mountains to protect streams and drainage. It has helped fund desalination facilities in Riverside County that remove natural accumulations of salt. It has helped purchase land for the creation of spreading ponds in Orange County to revive the aquifer, and it has initiated studies of the chemical composition of its water, looking for trace impurities throughout the watershed.

If the sky didn't fall in Orange County, probably it won't fall in the Ojai Valley either. And maybe not CA.

Might take another six years — or more — though, to bring this idea to fruition for Ventura River. It's a surprisingly large watershed, as shown in this image from an Ojai Valley Land Conservancy newsletter.

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