Community rallies to reverse decades of pollution in the Ventura River
By Chloe Vieira 06/07/2012
Rainwater washes through horse corrals and carries horse waste to the storm drains that feed into the Ventura River. Polluted water from oil fields spills into the storm drains off Ventura Avenue. Those are just a couple of the scenes the Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, an advocacy group that holds industrial companies in the area accountable for their effect on the environment, captured for a series of YouTube videos called Watchdog Diaries. The videos were created specifically to document the state of the Ventura River.
Members of the ChannelKeeper caught the attention of Aera Energy, which has oil and gas operations in Ventura County, after they were seen videotaping on and around the property. That is exactly what the film crew wanted.
In a meeting with the ChannelKeeper, Aera Energy agreed to develop a plan to mitigate storm water pollution.
“We’re going to wait and see what they come up with,” said Ben Pitterle, watershed programs director for the ChannelKeeper.
But water pollution is just one reason why the Ventura River is not a safe place to be. Currently, more than a hundred homeless encampments exist in the river bottom. Tents, food wrappers, furniture and human waste are left until the river fills with water and washes back out into the ocean.
Though hundreds of freshmen from California Lutheran University volunteer to clean up the river bottom, collecting tons of trash every year, the problem persists because the homeless still populate the area.
Project Understanding is an organization in Ventura that helps the homeless find and maintain safe, legal places to live, including those who are currently living in the river bottom. Before the river can bounce back from years of pollution, those individuals must first be relocated.
Homeless2Home is a program under the umbrella of Project Understanding that provides case management services for the homeless.
“Homeless2Home will go with police officers and social service workers and say, ‘Look, your camp’s going to be removed. Would you like assistance in figuring out what your next move is in life?’ ” said Rob Orth, executive director at Project Understanding. “The usual response is, ‘No thank you, not interested.’ ”
Since Homeless2Home began in January of 2011, 25 homeless individuals have been relocated out of the Ventura River and into homes. Only one of those 25 people returned to homelessness.
Past efforts by volunteers to clean up the river bottom did not include relocating the homeless individuals, so when the volunteers left, the homeless returned.
According to Orth, increased patrol of that area by the city and county will help keep the homeless out.
“Once the river has more of a park-like atmosphere with trails and people, it becomes less attractive to them,” he said.
Relocating dozens of homeless individuals and fighting an uphill battle to preserve the health of the Ventura River are daunting tasks, but Friends of the Ventura River, and a network of other local activists and nonprofit groups, want to transform the waterway from an endangered resource to a safe and clean area that everyone can enjoy. Recently, Friends of the Ventura River have ramped up efforts to clean up the area and make it attractive to visitors.
The network’s ultimate goal is to create the Ventura River Parkway, a large park with bike paths, areas for recreation and clean wildlife habitats.
“The river used to be a place to swim and play, and now people hardly know it exists,” said Diane Underhill of Friends of the Ventura River. She said the construction of Highway 33 cut the community off from the river, but creating hiking trails crisscrossing the river bed will invite them back in.
Some of the groups involved in realizing the dream of the Ventura River Parkway include Friends of the Ventura River, Patagonia Inc., Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper, Project Understanding, Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, Watersheds Coalition of Ventura County and California State Parks. The number of people and organizations involved in reclaiming the river illustrates how big the job really is.
Pitterle of the Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper agreed that the Parkway should be the future of the Ventura River.
“It’s the ultimate solution to homelessness and trash in the river, and it has to be a collaborative effort from groups and the community to make it happen,” he said.
Friends of The Ventura River and The Ventura Hillside Conservancy are hosting a picnic and information fair at the Ventura River on June 9, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., in an effort to show the community that the river is a valuable resource that needs to be reclaimed. The group hopes exploring the river on guided tours will help people reconnect with the Ventura River and inspire them to support ongoing cleanup and preservation of it. The event is free to the public and lunch will be provided. The picnic will take place at the levee on the north side of the Main Street bridge.
For more information on the Ventura River Parkway project, go to http://matilija-coalition.org/docs/Ventura.River.Parkway.606.screen.resolution.pdf.