Photos by: Scott Alan Mount
Yes, we are still talking about the drought. The recent rains may have had many Ventura County residents breathing a sigh of relief, but the fact is, the rain did not change much.
“All the rains we have had brought lake levels up from 51.7 percent to 51.8 percent full,” said Ron Merckling, director of conservation at Casitas Municipal Water District. Casitas serves water users throughout the entire Ojai Valley all the way down the Ventura River, through Ventura to Mills Road, and from the Ventura River north to the Santa Barbara County line. This area includes 60,000 to 70,000 people and hundreds of farms. “Essentially, the recent rains have had no effect at ending our historic drought. We need a long soaking with 6 to 10 inches of rain before we can really start diverting water to Lake Casitas.” State and federal laws affect how much runoff must be allowed to move down the natural creeks and rivers to protect the habitat and endangered species such as the steelhead trout. Only after the fish get their ration from available runoff can water be diverted to the man-made Lake Casitas for human use.
The situation is the same in other parts of the County.
“Recent rains have had very little effect so far,” said Mike Solomon, general manager of United Water Conservation District. The district manages water resources along the Santa Clara River, from east of Lake Piru to the coast and from the south edge of Oxnard to Ventura at Mills Road in the north. “The ground was so dry that the first rain just soaked the top soil and there was no runoff in the Santa Clara River to use for groundwater recharge in the Oxnard Plain.” He said the second rain, “the big one,” did produce some runoff, which is being used to recharge “the forebay in the El Rio area for potable water needs of the Oxnard-Hueneme Pipeline users.” He said the nitrate levels in that area were a bit high due to the low groundwater levels, but by using the run off to dilute the groundwater, they bought some time, “but we have a long way to go to recover from the drought.”
United manages Lake Piru. While not directly a drinking water source, releases from Lake Piru are used to recharge the groundwater basins downstream. “Lake Piru got some good runoff during the rains, but it was at less than 25 percent capacity before the rains,” said Solomon. “On Dec. 1 the lake, which can store 82,000 acre-feet, had only 16,720 acre-feet. And as of Dec. 31 there are 17,950 acre-feet. So we added about 1,230 acre-feet for the month. It is still a very empty lake.”
For general planning purposes an average family is assumed to use about one acre-foot annually.
When asked whether conservation alone will stretch Ventura County water resources to all users in the future, Solomon said, “We cannot conserve our way out of future droughts; the demand is too high versus the supply. We need to add new supply. Even taking out all lawns would not solve the problem. It would help, but there is still a large agricultural demand on the local supply.”
If he could do one thing in Ventura County regarding water resources, he said, “First, we as a county have to decide whether we are going to continue to be a large agricultural community, and value the quality of life we all enjoy as a result of the open space. Or do we just become another Orange County with more people and cement?” He said the choice Ventura residents make will determine the details in the sustainability plans being developed by local groundwater management agencies in the coming years. If the county chooses to maintain the open space lifestyle then “Ag versus city water use arguments need to stop. We need to be in it together to solve the problem.” He said once that commitment is made, stakeholders will have to come to an agreement about a “local water resource safe yield.” A safe yield is the amount of groundwater that can be taken out over a period of time without stressing the basins, meaning that water is used in amounts and with proper timing to allow the groundwater basins to recharge, thus preventing seawater intrusion, subsidence and other water-quality degradation risks. “If local water is still not enough, then we’ll have to start paying for new water resources,” said Solomon.
Phase One of the Advanced Water Purification Facility is the microfiltration of the water through a low-pressure process (above cover image). Pressure is used to push the water through a membrane with holes “5,000 times smaller than a pinhole.” Suspended particles, bacteria and other materials are strained out of the water.
Phase Two (no photo) is reverse osmosis. In this step, high pressure is used to push the water through a plastic layered membrane. RO filters out minerals, contaminants, viruses and other materials.
Phase Three (above photo) is the advanced oxidation with ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide treatment. The process uses UV light to disinfect the water. The high intensity light acts in a way similar to sunlight and converts the hydrogen peroxide into a disinfectant. This process kills microorganisms and other organic matter.
With water, as with many of the earth’s resources, it comes down to money. How much are you willing to pay for a good-tasting, clean glass of water from your tap? How much for a 15-minute shower? Or to rinse off your camper or sidewalk?
“All the low-hanging fruit for inexpensive water sources is gone,” said Solomon. “All new water sources (including desalting) are going to be very expensive, five to 10 times the current cost of local water sources. Who is going to pay for this?” He points out that state law requires voters to approve hikes in water fees. This can make it challenging for water purveyors to raise the funds needed to finance projects for new water sources. He said money is one of the main hurdles to supplying water to all users. “A master plan (countywide) is needed so that everything we do creates sustainability overall, not just fixing a few people’s water problems.”
Water sustainability: Now a state mandate
Last year Gov. Jerry Brown signed a series of bills into law, which created the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Until that bill was signed, California was the only western state with no management plan in place for its groundwater basins. That approach seemed all right from the layperson’s perspective until the drought meant that groundwater wells, private and municipal, were sucking mud across the state. Officials in Sacramento knew something had to be done. The SGMA created a system for prioritizing groundwater basins by how vital they are as a source of water, and whether a given basin has substantial risk factors for depletion or quality degradation. The designations are: very low, low, medium, high. The act requires that basins receiving the designation of medium or high be managed by groundwater sustainability agencies, and those agencies are required to create sustainability plans for the basins that have been overdrafted. The agencies must be identified by 2017; overdrafted basins must have sustainability plans in place by 2020; and other basins designated as high or medium priority, not currently in overdraft, must have sustainability plans in place by 2022. And by 2040, all high and medium priority basins must achieve sustainability.
These prioritizations are determined based on the following criteria — overlying population, projected growth of population (and potential increase in demand), public supply wells, total wells, overlying irrigated acreage and reliance on groundwater as main source of water. Also considered in the designation are potential for negative impacts on the basins such as overdraft, subsidence, seawater intrusion and other water-quality degradation issues, all of which are issues in the county.
The water well moratorium imposed late in 2014 by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors is written to sunset as sustainability plans are adopted for effected basins.
The GREAT Program
Some cities are taking proactive, albeit expensive, steps to ensure their water users will be covered when it comes to water needs. Oxnard has been working on a project going on 20 years, and it’s finally at the point of being ready to operate. The entire project is called GREAT, or Groundwater Recovery Enhancement and Treatment. Part of the project involves a desalter, which will remove salt from groundwater it pumps, and another aspect involves treating wastewater that would normally be pumped to the ocean.
“The city’s recycled water plant, called the Advanced Water Purification Facility (AWPG), is in the commissioning or final testing process and should be operational by the end of February,” said Daniel Rydberg, capital projects manager for the city of Oxnard. “Connections to the River Ridge Golf Club courses will be made in February.” He explained that they hope the courses get enough natural rainfall so it won’t be necessary to start supplying recycled water until the spring. Then the city will start connecting to the landscape irrigation system of the River Park residential neighborhood. United Water Conservation District and Pleasant Valley Mutual Water will be customers. Oxnard will use around 1,700 acre-feet of the recycled water each year, and the leftover water, about 5,300 acre-feet, will be used for agricultural irrigation. In the coming years, the city will continue to build out the facility to full capacity and bring more users online. Rydberg said he expects some school districts to be connected to the system in the near future, to use recycled water for irrigation.
The GREAT program’s name may feel like a misnomer for some. Critics point to the cost of the facility and the length of time it has taken to get going.
“The city first began looking into recycled water in 1994, so this is the culmination of 20 years of hard work,” said Rydberg. “There were many challenges along the way because this was one of the first facilities of its kind. But the plant will begin operating at a perfect time to help alleviate the water shortage, one of the things it was intended to do.”
“We have been really careful,” said Carmen Ramirez, Oxnard’s mayor pro-tem, about ensuring that the city has the necessary funds to operate the facility correctly. She explained that they are finalizing some contracts with other water purveyors, outside city limits, who are interested in purchasing the recycled water the facility will produce. “A lot of tax dollars have been spent. We got stimulus money to build it. One of the conditions was, we had to only use American-made equipment and parts.”
“The two main reasons the construction timeline was extended were the requirements of a grant and changing state regulations,” said Rydberg. “The city accelerated the start of the plant construction when it received a $20 million grant from the Bureau of Reclamation. Then, during construction, the state changed requirements for testing of discharges from the recycled water and wastewater plants. This added over a year to the construction schedule. This work was completed last summer and [it will] be operating soon”
Using state-of-the-art technology, the facility is designed to recycle wastewater, remove salt from groundwater, return water into the ground through injection for water storage and recovery, and to restore area wetlands. The AWPF program uses microfiltration, reverse osmosis and advanced oxidation to create a pure water source from recycled water. The microfiltration step uses a membrane to filter out particles and bacteria. Then reverse osmosis removes minerals, contaminants and viruses. The final step, advanced oxidation, uses ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to destroy any microorganisms and other organic particles that might still be in the water. These processes are used in the food and medical industries to ensure sterile and safe conditions.
So basically GREAT will be working with two water cycles. One is the recycling of wastewater, decreasing the amount of water the city of Oxnard discharges into the ocean from the wastewater treatment facility. Using the AWPF process, the water will meet quality standards for municipal water suppliers. It will be used to irrigate crops and nonagricultural areas such as parks, roadway medians, golf courses and athletic fields. Also, the recycled water can be re-injected into groundwater basins to act as a barrier to seawater intrusion that occurs when basins are overdrafted. The city views the use of recycled water as a part of the water supply of the future.
“Two pipelines have already been constructed,” said Rydberg, “one running north from the plan and one running east from the plant. An extension of the east pipeline is currently being designed and will provide water for local agricultural use.” He explained that the city will get revenue from selling that water “as well as pumping allocations from the sale of water to agricultural customers. The pumping allocations will be used to produce local water, which is less expensive than imported water.”
“It is going to be drinkable,” said Ramirez. Initially, though, the focus will be on providing the recycled water to agricultural users. “The water will be better for farmers. Better than water from groundwater wells, less salt in the water will lead to better crop yield.” While the water will meet drinkability standards, the water won’t be coming out of your kitchen tap quite yet.
“The purified water will be used for landscape and agricultural irrigation and for industrial processes,” said Rydberg. “Current law does not allow for direct deliveries to residential customers, and constructing a separate pipeline distribution system would be too expensive anyway.” But he said that Oxnard received a grant to “construct an aquifer storage and recovery well this year.” He explained that the well could be used to produce “potable water indirectly from the purified water from the AWPF. Providing water to different types of customers will increase the reliability and efficiency of the system.
“One of my favorite things about the AWPF is that it is a state-of-the-art plant with a very futuristic feel,” said Greg Nyhoff, Oxnard city manager. “It really showcases the progressive nature of the community and its understanding of the importance of sustainable water supply. This is a time of severe drought throughout the region and the AWPF gives us the reliability to take water that would normally be discharged into the ocean, process it, and use it to supplement our groundwater and surface water supplies.”
Another part of the GREAT program is the desalting process using water Oxnard will pump from groundwater basins.
While this plan seems to cover all the bases, it is not without it’s drawbacks. Solomon points out that at the root of the plan is pumping out the groundwater, albeit salty groundwater, which is desalted and then used to irrigate crops. It’s not really bringing new water into the cycle, and might even lead to more pumping from the groundwater basins if it really makes that salty groundwater more attractive to ag users and decreases Oxnard’s need for state water.
“The desalt plan will desalt groundwater that Oxnard will pump in lieu of buying more state water to maintain the current quality being provided to city residents,” said Solomon. The state water is currently mixed with groundwater to improve the quality. State water is expensive, and the rising cost makes facilities like the GREAT program attractive as an option that might save money over time. “United is also one of five groups that is looking at an agreement with Oxnard to purchase a portion of the first phase of the recycled water (about 7,000 acre-feet of a total of 28,000) that will be available if the plant is ever fully built out.” He said United has had a lot of input into Oxnard’s plan for how the recycled water that will come out of the GREAT facility will be used outside of city limits. “We don’t want them to make deals that benefit a few and cause problems elsewhere. But it is Oxnard’s water,” said Solomon. He explained that if being able to use less state water and more local water — through the groundwater pumping and desalting — just leads to moving the increase in pumping from one area to another, there is no net increase in water supply; it’s just moving the water around. “Using less state water doesn’t help us locally,” said Solomon.
Even for the wastewater to be recycled, it needs to be there to be used in the first place, to be used and rinsed down the drain or flushed down the toilet in the first place.
Ultimately, Solomon believes, “If done right” the GREAT facility can benefit the county. “If we are able to harvest the water flowing out to the ocean and decrease groundwater pumping, we all benefit. But if there is no gain of water, just using the same amount of water elsewhere, we are still in trouble. “
Solomon doesn’t hold just Oxnard responsible when it comes to water sustainability.
“The city of Ventura should also be required to buy their state water allocation and reduce their demand on local water resources like every other city in the county does,” he said. Ojai is the exception to that rule, and does not get any water from the state. Water users in Ojai use a combination of Lake Casitas water and groundwater, depending on where they are in the valley.
Oxnard is not the only city exploring options for expanding its water supply. Ventura has two studies under way involving reusing wastewater for nondrinking-related uses. The cost for those projects is capped at $55 million. Camrosa Water (Camarillo) and Port Hueneme also utilized desalting technology to extend their available water sources.
“Water is very complicated, but folks need to understand programs like GREAT will only help toward sustainability if it is done right. And that has been what United has been trying to emphasize,” Solomon said, adding many see the program as creating new water, but that view doesn’t take into consideration the issues it causes for other users. “If it is an exchange for pumping between farmers and the city we haven’t solved anything and we are just fooling ourselves.”
High Priority Basins:
Santa Clara River Valley (from Piru east to L.A. County Line)
Los Posas Valley
Santa Clara River Valley (Oxnard)
Medium Priority Basins:
Arroyo Santa Rosa Valley
Santa Clara River Valley (portion from Fillmore to the coast)
Low Priority Basins:
Very Low Priority Basins:
Ventura River Valley, Lower Ventura River
Thousand Oaks area