Ventura River at Foster Park, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper

Pictured: A family enjoys the Ventura River just days after pumping stopped at the Foster Park well field. Aug. 2021. Photo courtesy of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. 

by Kimberly Rivers

Can we live within our watershed? 

Human beings used to easily live within their watersheds, only habitating where there was enough water to sustain themselves. Today, we have the technology and money to put water where it is needed. But climate change is forcing a hard truth to seep to the surface: Water is a limited resource and we may not have enough for all. 

Think about your daily use of water. The glass of water on your table, or the water bottle in your backpack. Toilet flushing. Showers. Car wash. Laundry. Lawns and landscaping. Could you use less water each day without much hardship? How much less? 

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Recorded water wells in the Ventura River Watershed. May not include all wells. Source: California State Water Resources Control Board.

What if you knew that in 10 years there would be no water when you turn on the tap? What would you change today? 

Expand the lens. Imagine all of the water users, the big water users. That includes farmers and water companies that deliver water to your tap. Could they draw less water from their wells that suck up groundwater from basins or surface water from reservoirs? 

Will the communities with enough money to buy pipes to connect to state water or drill private wells be the only ones with consistent access to water? 

And humans aren’t the only water users in a watershed. There are plants and wildlife. 

Is there enough water for all of us? If not, how will we survive? 

Right now, some staff of municipal water purveyors may want to contact the VCReporter and tell us this story will cause undue panic among the public, that we are not in that kind of crisis right now. Others will say that water purveyors are planning for that possibility. City and water companies are constantly looking at basin levels and demand, and feeling the pressure to diversify water supplies. They are getting funding to connect to water sources out of the area. But with more and more straws dipping into all supplies, including the State Water Project, it is a fact that there will be less water for everyone. 

Water use is going to have to change. But who will be the first to change and will there be equity across all users? When should we change our water use behavior? Now, or when there is no water at the tap? 

SGMA and AB1390

As Ventura County struggles to answer these basic questions amidst dwindling rainfall totals, climate change and a multitude of demands on water sources, some groups, including cities, are taking the question to the courts where property owners, municipalities, water agencies and river protectors are becoming embroiled in a process that tends to pit stakeholders against each other rather than build collaboration. 

“Any solution ideally would lead to some sort of collaborative understanding that we are all in this together,” said Paul Jenkin, Ventura campaign coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation and founder of the Matilija Coalition. He has worked for years on Ventura River Watershed issues, and been an organizer around the removal of the Matilija Dam. “It makes more sense to pursue a collaborative [process] where we can look at solutions in sharing a limited resource rather than using the adjudication, what some would call the ‘nuclear option,’ and see who can hire the most expensive lawyers.”

Paul Jenkin

Paul Jenkin.

He is referring to the legal process California formulated in 2015 with new laws that created a legal framework to hash out water rights and water allocations following the 2014 passage of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). 

In an effort to avoid state takeovers of groundwater basins, SGMA identified basins most subject to or at risk of over-pumping, and required local agencies to build a plan for sustainably managing water use in those basins. 

The problem with SGMA was that it didn’t give agencies the authority to manage water rights.

Assembly Bill 1390, passed in 2015, was an attempt at a remedy, creating a process for legal action for stakeholders who considered SGMA plan allocations unfair, or had any other complaints about SGMA. AB1390 allowed for stakeholders to file for a groundwater basin adjudication to be overseen by the courts. 

AB1390 defines a watershed adjudication as “as an action filed in superior court to comprehensively determine rights to extract groundwater in a basin.” The bill authorizes a judge to determine water rights based on various legal criteria. (A water right is not the same as water use allocation.) 

It might seem that this would create an effective, objective process. The legal remedy, however, also sets a course for a process bogged down in court for decades. Meanwhile, status quo water use continues, pumpers keep pumping, temperatures increase, lake levels drop and rivers run dry. 

Under these circumstances, the idea of no tap water in 10 years doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

Jenkin sounded resigned when he said the current adjudication of the Ventura River Watershed was “inevitable, because of the SGMA process . . . The problem with SGMA is that it doesn’t address water rights. For example, if the SGMA process [for the Ventura River Watershed] led to limits on pumping, that would be fine as long as everyone went along with it. If they all understood it’s in everyone’s interest to limit pumping so we are sustainable into the future. But all it takes [with SGMA] is one party in that groundwater basin to object and to file suit, and that triggers an adjudication.” 

Ventura River Watershed water cycle, State Water Resources Control Board

The water cycle within the Ventura River Watershed. Source: California State Water Resources Control Board.

One example that demonstrates the limitations of SGMA can be seen in the two adjudications filed against the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency (GMA). One of those cases was just filed June 15, 2021, for the Santa Clara River Valley and Pleasant Valley Groundwater basins. 

Fox Canyon was one of the first in Ventura County to get organized to comply with SGMA, doing a lot of the hard work to bring stakeholders together. Strong leadership fostered buy-in from many and a plan was put in place, along with ordinances for pumping fees and allocations.

But today, plaintiffs include dozens of property owners in the area, and Fox Canyon GMA is asking the court to allow this new case to be joined with one filed in 2018 for the Oxnard and Las Posas Groundwater basins. Numerous law firms have been involved. 

Adjudication action has also recently been filed for the Cuyama Groundwater basin in northern Ventura County. 

Pumping is off at Foster Park

    “This is an important milestone to highlight for the community. On Aug. 5, the city of Ventura fully shut down the well field at Foster Park to maintain a flowing river,” said Ben Pitterle, science and policy director for Santa Barbara Channelkeeper (SBCK). 

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Ben Pitterle, science and policy director with Santa Barbara Channelkeeper. Photo submitted.

The organization filed legal action against the California State Water Resources Control Board and the city of Ventura in 2018 because the city’s pumping at Foster Park impacted flows in the Ventura River, which resulted in a negative impact on habitat of the endangered steelhead trout. The action called out the state water board for failing to properly enforce state law. 

In 2019 SBCK and the city negotiated a settlement, which was revised in 2020. “Per our agreements,” according to Pitterle, the city shut down the water well pumping at Foster Park due to river flows dropping to the low thresholds of that agreement. 

“Almost the next day the flow rebounded,” said Pitterle. “There was water in the river. Not a lot of water — we are using the term ‘life support’ and I think that is accurate. It is keeping the river alive.” He said if the city hadn’t shut off those pumps, “we definitely do think it would be going dry about now, had it not been for those steps. This is not a final resolution of all of this; our goal is to make sure enough water is left in the river, to keep it flowing and alive.” 

He was excited to highlight this “tangible benefit to the river and the community” with increased water flows. He witnessed families enjoying the water just days after the pumping was turned off. “This was our goal the whole time.” 

Ventura Water well at Foster Park. Photo by Santa Barbara ChannelKeeper

One of the water wells at the city of Ventura’s field at Foster Park. Photo by Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.

The city’s Foster Park well field includes two water wells slightly upstream from the visible cement wall that crosses the Ventura River. Just upriver from the wall is a subsurface dam about 20-30 feet deep. That “dam” is a perforated pipe that connects to a holding tank. Pumps draw water from the river in through the subsurface pipe to a holding tank. The two wells can be shut off simply by stopping the pumps.

“Foster Park supplies about 20% of water supply in a normal year, in drought years a little less,” said Susan Rungren, general manager for Ventura Water. She said the facility at that location taps into the city’s “oldest water supply.” The city grew westward from that area, North Ventura Avenue. She added that even before the city was founded, the river and a diversion at that area provided water to Mission San Buenaventura. 

Even earlier, before the land was claimed by either Spain or Mexico, the local Chumash relied on the flows of the Ventura River to provide freshwater, and to support fish and other wildlife that provided a food source for the Indigenous people. 

“We all know it’s a great watershed and we want to keep it that way and we all need to utilize it,” Rungren said. She emphasized that all users in the “watershed as a whole” need to “work together on helping the environment, the fish, the people, agriculture, everybody” to achieve a sustainable solution for water use. 

She explained that the thresholds for minimal river flow agreed upon by the city and SBCK led to a reduction in pumping in June of this year, and she confirmed that the city’s monitoring found the flow dropped in early August, requiring the city to turn off the pumps completely. 

As for when the pumps will come back on, Jennifer Tribo, a management analyst with Ventura Water, said, “Realistically, it’s not going to be until after a measurable rainfall event.” When such an event causes flows in the river to increase up to the threshold amount, the pumps can be turned back on. 

Tribo also emphasized that “the city has been diversifying its water supply.” The city pumps water from three different groundwater basins and from Lake Casitas. In recent years, with the lengthening drought becoming the norm, the city has been “relying more on Lake Casitas. In years when the river is flowing well, the city utilizes more groundwater.” 

According to both Rungren and Tribo, city water users have been keeping consumption down to levels that mean they don’t have to declare a water shortage for the city, even in the face of the ongoing drought. 

Miles Hogan, assistant city attorney for Ventura, added that the city’s “water shortage plan was updated earlier this year with a new baseline” that relies on “customers to continue their conservation efforts.” 

Based on current models, water supply and management plans, the city feels it does not need to ask customers to conserve more than what they are currently using. This means the status quo today is viewed as sustainable by the city. 

We are all in this together

One question many are asking: Shouldn’t other users be asked to conserve, so that everyone in the watershed — individuals, water purveyors, agricultural and industrial users — are all working together to live within the watershed? 

According to the city of Ventura, this is why an adjudication process is needed. And some, like Jenkin, who maybe don’t see the adjudication process as ideal, recognize it might be the only way to compel parties to come together. 

But Jenkin pointed to another issue he feels is not being addressed in the adjudication process: How the proposed “physical solution” doesn’t actually include any reduction in water use.

“Various parties think they can challenge the science and/or challenge the legal process and somehow come out ahead,” with an adjudication, said Jenkin. “And it’s not always to the betterment of the whole . . . some with a more selfish agenda. And if you superimpose on all of this climate change, you see that every river in the world, in arid regions, is drying up right now. In the west, flow is diminishing. There is less and less water to go around.”

Right now, in the current first phase of the adjudication, some parties claim that they shouldn’t be subject to any aspect of the adjudication, or anything that comes as a result of this process, because pumping water from the groundwater basin underneath their property does not impact flows in the Ventura River. 

Surface flows downstream are dependent on what happens upstream. That is universally understood even by the most novice watershed observers. But a key question being raised in the Ventura River Watershed adjudication is to what degree pumping from different locations overlying various groundwater basins (at what rate, and for how long) impacts the Ventura River. Essentially, some parties in the Upper Ojai Valley and Matilija Canyon areas are trying to prove to the court that their property is not in the Ventura River Watershed. Some might be able to convince the court of that. But should that preclude them from reducing their water usage? 

The state is expected to weigh in on those arguments, and ultimately the court will decide with the input of experts. 

“In the face of crisis, big monied interests are . . . going to be throwing their money around . . . trying to stake their claim ahead of others so that they can maintain the status quo,” said Jenkin. “I think that is what we are seeing in the Ventura case. The status quo is not viable, there is less and less water to go around. This is a challenging time, in general, for humanity. Populations are increasing, water and crucial supplies are diminishing. The pressure is on.”

He also added that a crucial aspect of the watershed is so far being left out of the process: the planned removal of the Matilija Dam. 

“The challenge is that, I believe there will be really beneficial ecosystem changes, even to the water supply, that are hard to quantify in advance of the dam removal because a dam in this type of arid environment hasn’t been removed before.” 

He explained that after the Thomas Fire there were “large amounts of sediment” in the river and surface flows in the Ventura River “persisted longer than they would have under historical conditions.” Why? “It’s The same sort of thing we’ve always argued with the ocean-friendly gardens, bioswale construction, the biological component of living soil that creates a sponge and it holds water much better than just straight sand and rock. When you have the biology start to restore in the river, I think that we will hold more water and probably see more surface flows.” 

The physical solution

In September 2020, the first draft of a physical solution was submitted to the court as a joint proposal with the city of Ventura, Meiners Oaks Water District, Ventura River Water District, Wood Claeyssens Ranch and Matilija Canyon Water Company. 

Hogan explained that the physical solution is “mainly a settlement proposal and management structure for managing the watershed going forward for decades.” He said the city hopes the physical solution will allow the process to move quickly as it will present a plan for parties to develop a “framework and management plan . . . to address the needs of the steelhead, allowing the city and others in the watershed to keep using water in a sustainable manner and adaptively manage the place for decades to come.” 

He clarified that once adopted the court will “retain jurisdiction” to enforce any aspects of the physical solution or resolve any disputes in the future. 

Jenkin and others have criticized the current draft of the physical solution as not creating any tangible reduction in water pumping from the watershed, questioning how it can ultimately yield a sustainable plan without calling out specific allocations or reductions in use. 

In effect, it is the city’s position that the management plan developed as part of any court approved Physical Solution must result in water flows matching historical levels in the river and that would mean water use in the watershed was being sustainably managed. Such a plan, that maintained historical flow levels, could include rules for water users, including pumpers, that may require them to use or pump less when flows dipped, in order to comply with the management plan, ultimately leaving more water in the entire watershed and river. According to the City, any future water management requirements, other than the flow requirements at Foster Park, would be developed, if necessary, by the management committee based on a public process and consistent with the requirements of any applicable Groundwater Sustainability Plan.

Hogan emphasized that such a plan “does not impair people’s water rights . . . the idea is to protect existing beneficial water uses, while addressing the needs of the steelhead.” He added that the city is “trying to avoid a full-blown long-term adjudication where everybody gets some specific allocation,” because the stakeholders would be “fighting over those amounts for a long time.”  

Instead, he said the city wants “everyone to come together on a locally developed solution,” with watershed stakeholders “working together into the future” as water use in the watershed will have to be adapted to a changing climate and changing demands. 

“I very rarely talk about steelhead,” said Pitterle when asked about the value of a sustainably managed watershed.  “I know legally [the fish are] a driving force. It’s just, I truly believe having places where local families can access a flowing river is extremely valuable. For people who don’t understand this: Just go and sit there. Spend half an hour. Just listen and observe. Experience what it is.”