The impact of the drought on Ventura County’s ag industry
By Kimberly Rivers 06/05/2014
With water battles heating up across the state, Ventura County growers and water agencies are struggling to work together to find solutions. In April, Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency adopted an emergency ordinance that forces reduced water use, lowers water pumping and may force growers to rethink how they use water and how much land they plant on.
In the past year, while the drought just got worse, pumps continued to extract water where many said there was none. State regulators have been breathing down the necks of the local water agencies to protect aquifers that have been left to unfettered extraction for at least 20 years. Battles over water in California are nothing new; and with most consumers — regular household users — not being fully aware of the complex network of systems, agencies, facilities, sources and regulations that determine who gets the water, how much they get and how much they pay for it, consumers may lack the motivation to use less water and demand that their food be grown with less water as well.
Eat Less Water
“Our food choices matter in dry years and wet years alike. Even in wet years water is drawn from the ground quicker than rainfall and seepage can naturally replace it,” said Florencia Ramirez, author, blogger and Oxnard resident. Her current project — a book titled Eat Less Water (blog of the same name), examines the link between water and the food we eat. “For example, in my hometown of the Oxnard Plain, the groundwater levels drop by 300,000 acre-feet or 98 billion gallons each year; enough water to fill nearly 150,000 Olympic-size pools. And this total was before the drought.”
When asked about the role of growers in determining which crops are grown and how their choices affect our water supply, Ramirez said, “Our food producers, whether at the farm level or as buyers of ingredients for processed foods, have a tremendous impact on our water systems locally and globally.” She explains that 70 percent of “all freshwater draws” — including surface and groundwater – is used on cropland. “We need water regulations to reflect our water reality in California. Its abundance is an illusion. For example, 20 percent of all groundwater withdrawals in the U.S. are in California, used predominantly for irrigation. Even with dropping water tables in California, few rules or oversight exists on groundwater withdrawals.”
“The good news is, food can be produced in ways that protect the integrity of water systems,” said Ramirez. She has traveled across California and has visited farms raising “dry-farmed grains” in Paso Robles, “meaning, no irrigation is used in the wet months of winter or the dry months of summer.” She went to “a biodynamic farm in Sonoma Valley, where all the industrial use water, meaning the water used to make bottled wine, is funneled to a man-made wetland where the water is naturally cleaned with the sway of hollow reeds and grasses. This water is then used for irrigation of the grape vines.” And is only released to the drip lines when “soil probes indicate they are thirsty.”
Florencia Ramirez, author of Eat Less Water.
Some growers in Ventura County are also using these high-tech processes for monitoring in real time the amount of water needed in the soil, and they are able to “pinch” the wells to decrease the flow during their irrigation, depending on the data.
“Growers need to know there is a market for water-sustainable foods,” said Ramirez. “The reality is, it is more time- and/or land-intensive to produce food in a water-sustainable way. Visiting farms around the country, I’ve seen glimpses of the tremendous amount of dedication employed by farmers who are managing their water and soil with an eye to those who will inherit the land. Farming strategies like biodynamic, dry farming, holistic management, crop rotation, need to mean something to the consumer. If they don’t, then the consumer will not be willing to spend the extra money needed to make the farms/food producers financially viable.”
“Hothouse tomatoes use four times the amount of water,” said Russ Baggerly, board member of Casitas Municipal Water District and Ojai Valley Groundwater Basin Management Agency. Baggerly spoke at a drought event in Ojai on March 9. This way of growing tomatoes allows for them to be available year round. “And they taste like cardboard. You are the consumer. If you don’t like tomatoes that taste like cardboard, don’t buy them.”
Where we get our water
In Ventura County there are six major water agencies that ensure all users have access to enough water. Some use only local water — ground water (water that is naturally held underground and gathered in wells) or surface water (held in lakes, reservoirs), while others use water from the State Water Project. Water from the State Water Project comes from precipitation in state and from Colorado, Oregon and Mexico. Through the vast system of canals, pipes and aqueducts the water is moved to the various users throughout the state.
Calleguas Municipal Water District (CMWD) provides water to the local water purveyors in the cities of Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Camarillo, Thousand Oaks, Moorpark and Simi Valley. It also serves the unincorporated areas near Camarillo, in east county and Naval Base Ventura County. CMWD receives water from Metropolitan Water District in Southern California (MWDSC) and then distributes it to the local agencies that sell to users. Water received from MWD comes from the State Water Project, or the California Aqueduct.
Camrosa Water District (CWD) provides water to a 31-square-mile area surrounded by the cities of Camarillo, Simi Valley, Moorpark and Thousand Oaks.
Casitas Municipal Water District includes the entire Ojai Valley, the Ventura River Valley area and the city of Ventura from the river to Mills Road, as well as the Rincon area up along the beach to the Santa Barbara County line. The district was formed in 1956 when the federal government approved the Ventura River project, which included the Lake Casitas Dam.
Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency (FCGMA) is an independent special district created by the state legislature in 1982 to oversee and protect the aquifers throughout the southwestern portion of Ventura County, over the deep Fox Canyon Aquifer. The agency manages the following water basins: Arroyo Santa Rosa Basin, Oxnard Plain Forebay Basin, Las Posas Basins (East, West and South), Oxnard Plain Pressure Basin and the Pleasant Valley Basin. The groundwater that comes from the basins overseen by FCGMA provides more than half of the water needs for more than 700,000 residents in the cities of Ventura, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Camarillo and Moorpark, as well as various unincorporated areas near to aforementioned cities. The agency is funded through fees paid by those who extract groundwater from within the agency boundaries. This includes agricultural users.
United Water Conservation District (UWCD) maintains and oversees the water in the Santa Clara River Valley. Groundwater from this area serves the cities of Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Ventura, Santa Paula and Fillmore as well as many mutual water companies and many farms and individual well pumpers. UWCD manages Lake Piru and the Freeman Diversion, a facility that captures storm water to recharge the aquifer.
It is a complex network of wells, pumps and pipes that produces clean water when a resident turns on the tap. But even if residential water users cut way back on their home and landscaping use, it may not make much of a dent or a drop when huge amounts of water are being used to grow food, most of which leaves the county.
Water supply in Ventura County
Earlier this year at a presentation on the drought in Ojai, Ventura County District 1 Supervisor Steve Bennett emphasized the importance of “living within the watershed” in Ventura County. Even with the small storm that passed through a couple of months ago, most of the water ran to the ocean. Our systems — starting with downspouts and rain gutters — are set up to move the water out and away, quickly, into our storm water system, rather than slowing it down and allowing it to soak into the ground to replenish the aquifers where most of our water comes from.
Data presented at recent meetings of United Water Conservation District (UWCD) and Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency (FCGMA) reveal that for about the past 20 years, water usage in much the county has led to the overdraft — using more water than the basin can recharge — of about 30,000 acre feet per year, regardless of rainfall. One acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, about what two average households use in a year.
FCGMA met on March 14 to consider Emergency Ordinance E that would reduce the amount of water extracted from the basins by a total of 20 percent. This reduction would be instituted gradually, starting in July and reaching the full 20 percent reduction by Jan. 1, 2016. While it would apply to all extractions, agricultural users would be heavily affected. After hearing public comments, mostly all from growers, the FCGMA board agreed not to vote on the ordinance that day, but to extend the vote to accept more input. The board directed staff to revise the ordinance, considering additional input.
“Farmers and cities are demonstrating their acceptance of the problems related to our regional water supply,” said David Borchard, board member of the Ventura County Farm Bureau and an FCGMA board member. Borchard is a resident of Somis, and his family has been growing in the county for six generations. His ancestor Christian Borchard is known for planting the first commercial crop in the County – dry farmed barley. Borchard encouraged the board to foster the cooperation that members are seeing. Farmers asked the board for more time to come up with plans and policies that can be incorporated into the emergency ordinance. Borchard points out that those outside of the agricultural business forget that farming is a business, and can be a very risky business, farmers expect a return for that risk. As part of the business, Borchard said farmers will naturally look for new crops when profits decline, for any reason including drought. Just like in any business, farmers will look for ways to earn an acceptable profit margin.
“Everybody agrees that something needs to be done,” said John Krist, CEO of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, responding via email. “We just want to make sure the right things get done. We cannot afford to delay, but we also need to take enough time to do it right. It’s not easy to find that sweet spot, but the growers are committed to working with the FCGMA to do so …. What we are asking the GMA to do is to carefully tailor that short-term response to address clearly identified problems, while making room for a collaborative stakeholder effort to solve that bigger problem — hopefully with the GMA’s participation.”
While the board gave growers more time, Lynn Maulhardt, UWCD board director and chairman of the FCGMA board, put them on notice. “For the first time in years we are hearing from a broad base (of growers). Our members are committing to spend real dollars. I never thought that would happen,” said Maulhardt to the more than 150 people filling the hearing room. “But I’m not naïve. An emergency ordinance is in front of you, and you don’t like it. Clearly we hit a nerve.”
He reminded them that the situation is serious and was created through years of over pumping. “We cannot do that again,” he said. “We have the ability to dial down the pumping and to leave water in the aquifer.” Maulhardt made sure growers understood his position. “If what you come up with is nothing more than a stalling tactic or to allow repeat (behavior), it will not fly, and I will not approve it.” He expressed exasperation when reading comment letters the board received at the 11th hour from the Ventura County Farm Bureau (VCFB) and Las Posas Users Group (LPUG). “We disagree with the urgency,” said Maulhardt, reading from the LPUG letter. “Folks, we are in denial. The forebay is going dry. Folks, we can’t be doing this and the state is looking at regulating us.”
“It’s insulting to accuse the growers in that room of being in denial,” said Krist, when asked to respond to the comment made by Maulhardt. “They know better than anyone the severity of the drought. They’re watching their pumping bills skyrocket, their well levels fall, their water quality deteriorate, their plants suffer and their profit margins shrivel. Many of them have been told their water will be turned off altogether by the end of summer because the wells will have run dry, possibly idling thousands of acres of very expensive and productive farmland.” Krist pointed out that the low water level in the basins is not the only cause of the problem. “This is a crisis that has been years in the making, and it’s one that GMA board has watched develop. There is a need to act, both to slow the depletion of the groundwater resource in the short term and to address the fundamental imbalance between supply and demand over the long term.”
On March 18 Maulhardt testified in Sacramento at an oversight hearing before the State Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee (SNRWC). The hearing was titled “Managing California’s Groundwater: Issues and Challenges.” He explained that the extraction amounts set over the past 20 years were based on a flawed USGS study, which set the “safe yield” at 120,000–130,000 acre-feet per year. The safe yield refers to the amount that can be extracted from the aquifer and still allow it to replenish itself. FCGMA fully implemented an extraction reduction plan by 2008, bringing the agency within that safe yield. But Maulhardt pointed out that, in fact, the safe yield is actually closer to 100,000 acre-feet. “With all that has been done to date a 20,000-30,000 acre-foot shortfall exists and seawater intrusion continues,” said Maulhardt.
With a $2 billion agriculture economy, led by a $691 million strawberry industry, the simple answer may be, we need all that water. But some may ask if the tasty red berries, and other high-water crops, are worth the water they’re grown with and whether growers have a duty to make more sustainable choices, even if it means they take a cut in profits.
“Most farmers have implanted the most cost-effective conservation methods for water use available, but crops must have a certain amount of water to be productive,” said Maulhardt. “The other challenge related to these high value crops is the cropping pattern. In the early days one to two crops per year were grown. Now, because of land costs and other mandates, farmers must turn three to four crops per year to meet their financial needs.”
Adjudication, overdraft, seawater and the steelhead trout
In the early ’80s state officials saw a problem with water usage in Ventura County. Several groundwater basins were being over-pumped. Due to the location of the basins, and how water flows underground, this overdrafting, had the potential to cause saltwater intrusion from the ocean, causing permanent damage to the aquifer.
“The state threatened to take over groundwater management unless Ventura County resolved the problem,” said Maulhardt in Sacramento. “Ventura County voted to retain local control and began taking the next steps to overcome the overdraft problem. The state gave Ventura County the opportunity to solve its problem locally and set 2010 as the deadline for achieving balanced groundwater management.” The county avoided adjudication, but has not met the deadline.
Adjudication is being thrown around a lot these days when it comes to water. Generally, it means that an outside body or arbiter reviews information and makes a decision determining rights and obligations of the parties involved. In relation to water, adjudication would mean determining who has the right to the water in question, how much water can be used, and prioritizing the uses of water. For some users, who might not be at the top of the list, this can cause a direct economic impact to their businesses. Maulhardt reminded growers, “Cities trump agriculture” in that priority list.
Back to the ’80s — local growers and water managers recognized the importance of maintaining oversight of the groundwater basins, and FCGMA was formed in 1982. It is a special district, wholly separate from the county and any city governments. The agency does not own any pipes or infrastructure but has “management jurisdiction” over 1,200 water wells in South Ventura County.
The primary mandate of FCGMA is to protect the aquifer systems within its boundary, which Maulhardt said was thought to have a 100-year supply “but is not easily recharged.” FCGMA is funded wholly through a groundwater extraction charge as allowed through the legislation that grants the agency its authority to manage the water.
In 1990 FCGMA facilitated the construction of the Vern Freeman Diversion Dam (a permanent structure located in the Santa Clara River) and the Pumping Through Pipeline (PTP), both constructed with the goal of reducing “groundwater pumping near the coast by providing in-lieu surface water deliveries off the Santa Clara River.” Maulhardt pointed out that those facilities were effective in the early ’90s to help pull the county out of the drought at that time.
Steelhead trout are native to Southern California waterways, including in Ventura County. Because the trout are protected under the Endangered Species Act, water agencies are required to keep a certain amount of water in streams and rivers, which creates a dilemma during drought conditions and puts a strain on farmers and water supplies for agricultural use.
Some shifts in the water supply chain occurred in Oxnard at that time as well. Maulhardt explained that the city of Oxnard became part of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), where it got about half of its water through the system managed by Calleguas Metropolitan Water District. The water Calleguas got from MWD helped it to fill the gap created by the reduced allocations set by FCGMA, and could “blend” it as needed “for water quality purposes.” All believed the system was set to both provide the needed water and protect the aquifer. But then the flaw in the USGS study — the incorrect safe yield — was recognized and the board realized that the system has actually been in overdraft for decades.
“The groundwater allocation system established by the FCGMA has not produced the intended results and must be addressed,” said Maulhart to the committee in Sacramento. “This will likely create hardship and financial difficulties until additional water supplies can be developed.” It’s hard to live in the county and not recognize the importance of agriculture. As a top economic driver in the County, agriculture creates the foundation for about 31,000 jobs, and $76 million in indirect taxes each year. According to information from the Ventura County Farm Bureau, “One in 10 county residents relies to some degree on income derived from farming.”
If you talk about water long enough, the steelhead trout and Endangered Species Act is bound to come up.
In 1973 the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was passed, and in 1997 the southern steelhead trout was added to the list of endangered species. As described by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD),“The steelhead are a unique form of rainbow trout. Like salmon, they spend most of their adult lives in the ocean, but spawn in freshwater streams and rivers.” They used to number in the tens of thousands in Southern California waters; but dams, water diversion facilities and other urban impacts have affected their habitat, and their numbers have dwindled to a few hundred. Due to rules and restrictions within the ESA, water agencies are required to leave a specified amount of water in streams and rivers regardless of drought conditions or other water needs. As a result, some farmers frequently feel at odds with the rare fish, and as water gets more scarce the ESA becomes a larger and redder target.
“In order to address these ESA issues…(less water will) be available for groundwater storage and surface water delivery,” said Maulhardt in Sacramento. “We accept these challenges before us and fully dedicate efforts that are necessary to protect the Southern California steelhead and other threatened species that may be impacted by our water resource operations.”
With farmers asking for direction from the groundwater agencies so they can decide whether or not to order plants for fall, there is a desire to have certainty.
“The world is a different place,” said Mike Solomon, general manager of UWCD at the March 12 meeting. He reminded folks that things are changing and suggested water use needs to change. “Crops were different, different cropping patterns, strawberries and raspberries. If people continue to plant, the public should know that under the ESA (we have new restrictions), we cannot divert all the water we want off the Santa Clara River. If we reach an emergency shortage (projected for later this year), then we do have judicial authority to take further action to restrict pumping to protect domestic uses of water.”