The Ventura Stream Team, a project launched in 2001 through the nonprofit organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, released its 2002-2005 report, which outlines the group’s ongoing effort to monitor the quality of Ventura’s naturally-occurring waterways and their findings. Approximately 600 volunteers have contributed to the five-year endeavor, regularly collecting water samples from 15 sites: Ventura River at the Main Street Bridge, Ventura River near Stanley Drain, Ventura River at Shell Road, Lower Canada Larga Creek, Upper Canada Larga Creek, Ventura River at Foster Park, San Antonio Creek at Old Creek Road, Lion Canyon, Stewart/Fox Creek, Thacher Creek, Ventura River at Santa Ana Road, Ventura River at Highway 150, Matilija Creek, North Fork Matilija Creek and Upper Matilija Creek. According to the report, each site was selected “to exemplify the range of conditions found on the [Ventura] river and its tributaries.” The report summarized findings from January 2001 through January 2006 and was compiled by Dr. Allen Leydecker, Ph.D., and Leigh Ann Grabowsky.

The 27-page report classifies the region’s climate, describes local vegetation, land use, rainfall trends and geographical features, and includes aerial views of the Ventura River Watershed, which is measured at 222 square miles and has its headwaters in the Santa Ynez Mountains. The findings exposed two main issues in local water: nutrient and bacterial pollution.

The report concludes that the main contributors to nutrient pollution are animal waste (from livestock and ranch facilities), defective septic systems, treated sewage effluent and run-off from fertilization, irrigation, and recreational facilities such as parks and golf courses. Increased bacterial levels are mainly attributed to waste from livestock facilities, pet refuse, general urban runoff, and damaged septic systems. Canada Larga Creek, for instance, runs through an area used predominantly for cattle grazing, resulting in livestock waste contaminating nearby waterways.

Ben Pitterle, watershed programs director of the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, says that most of the run-off issues are caused by mismanagement of agriculture and livestock, “largely due to lack of education and lack of landowner knowledge about the impact they are having,” pointing out that there are many areas where cattle are directly walking in the middle of the creek or river.

As a result, increased nutrient levels — primarily phosphate and nitrate — are causing excessive algae growth, which leads to the dissolving of oxygen levels in water, a process called “eutrophication.” This can harm or kill oxygen-dependent life, in some cases causing the mass-extermination phenomenon known as fish kills.

There is no evidence of fish kills in the area, according to Pitterle, but it is very likely that the lowered amount of oxygen puts stress on area fish populations.

“A lot of our levels of phosphate are way higher than anything that we’d normally see,” he says, adding that the effect of the runoff is “basically like adding fertilizer” directly to the water.

The water quality study identifies excessive algal growth in the Middle Ventura River, Lower Ventura River, Canada Larga and Lower San Antonio Creek in particular. Canada Larga and Upper San Antonio Creek were also deemed unsuitable for recreational activities that include water contact.

Taking into account bacteria and pH levels, water clarity and nutrient measurements, the report judges that the Matilija Creek and its North Fork are the most pristine waters in the Ventura system.

The program is a collaborative effort between the Ventura Surfrider Foundation and Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, and is funded mainly by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, California State Water Resources Control Board and the City of Ventura. Sample collections are conducted the first weekend of each month, with three to four teams of volunteers visiting each of the sites. Collected water is tested for bacteria and nutrients and water quality parameters — including dissolved oxygen, pH level, and water clarity — are measured. Volunteer groups consist of a diverse group of locals, from high school and college students to professionals.

Now that the volunteers have put in over 3,600 hours of work, Pitterle is confident that the results can pave the way for cleaner water systems. “We have a good baseline of data, and we’ve identified the key problem areas,” he states.

The complete report has been submitted to the State Regional Water Quality Control Board, the City of Ventura and the Department of Fish and Game, and can be found at www.sbck.org.

Pitterle emphasizes that the monitoring effort is ongoing, and that volunteers for sample-collection are always welcome.