A vein of the country’s brewing discontent between private and public management has managed to slither into the quiet foothills of the Topa Topa mountain range.

A core group of Ojai residents has been engaged in a venomous dispute to reclaim their water system, which is currently under the authority of the private Golden State Water Company. A feasibility study by Ojai FLOW (Friends of Locally Owned Water), a citizens group dedicated to community ownership and control of locally owned water, shows that the city’s Golden State customers are spending two to three times as much on their water bills as customers of neighboring water purveyors, like the Casitas Municipal Water District. For 2011, Golden State will charge Ojai customers $5 million for water service, the study shows. Casitas will charge $1.89 million for the same service. By 2025, the study concludes, the average Golden State Water Company customer will be paying nearly $450 bimonthly while the Casitas customer will be paying $130 for the same service.

“Those of us in the Golden State service area in four square miles of Ojai don’t get to enjoy the resource the same way our neighbors do,” said resident Richard Hajas, a co-founder of Ojai FLOW. “There are people going to extremes to keep the water bill down, and someone across the street is getting what they want for a reasonable price.”

Hajas has 30 years’ experience managing the operations and the finances of local water agencies such as Casitas and the Camrosa Water District in Camarillo. He and his wife live on an acre of land, half of which is irrigated. He described their water usage as conservative, yet their bimonthly water bill from Golden State is $800.

“Golden State is a legal monopoly operating under the PUC (Public Utilities Commission), governing what choices we have,” said Hajas. “They are like an investment company. To make money, they invest capital into the system and get return on that investment. It’s a crazy system because we have no control over what they invest in. It’s not a good time in the economy to be investing in stuff like that and raising people’s water rates.”

If the heart of Ojai becomes associated with exorbitant water rates, residents worry about what that will do to property values.

“We’re going to lose the core of Ojai house values because of these water rates,” said Pat McPherson, also a co-founder of Ojai FLOW. “It could force businesses out of town.”

Ojai Chamber of Commerce CEO Scott Eicher speculated that high water rates could drive out residents and businesses but said the chamber has not yet developed a stance on the issue.

Even though the city has been collecting revenue based on the franchise agreement with what would become Golden State back in 1967, newly elected council members campaigned on the idea of a buyout from Golden State.

But Golden State has repeatedly insisted during public meetings that the water system is not for sale. So city government and Ojai FLOW are pushing for Casitas Municipal Water District to acquire the Ojai water system by eminent domain.

“We’re looking at all potential issues and liabilities,” said Ron Merckling, the District’s water conservation and public affairs manager. “The main goal at this time is not to have our existing customers have to pay any cost involved in this process.”

Hajas estimated that acquisition by eminent domain can cost $17.6 million to $30 million.

“It will be expensive initially, but by going through this process we will take over control of that resource,” Hajas said. “There will be a big capital outlay to start, and we’ll pay that off over time. Then we’ll have the resource for the future.”

Regardless of what Casitas Municipal decides, the high water rates will continue for quite some time, according to Merckling.

“This is going to be a very long process,” Merckling said. “If somebody is expecting this to happen in a quick period, they are being unrealistic.”