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Still in Drought, California Town Seeks New Answers to Water Riddle

The Ojai Valley in Ventura County relies solely on local water sources, but in light of a continued dry spell and concerns over future supplies, it’s looking at several options to diversify.

Written by Michelaina Johnson Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Lake Casitas pictured in May 2017. The reservoir supplies water to the Ojai Valley, which remains in moderate drought and is one of only a few remaining areas of California still in drought conditions.Casitas Municipal Water District

For the vast majority of California, the record-breaking, five-year drought is over, but some cities like Ojai in Ventura County are not so lucky. With its human-made reservoir, Lake Casitas, still at levels not seen in half a century, some locals have been asking, “Can the Ojai Valley run out of water?”

In a presentation on Sept. 14, Ojai activist and engineer Angelo Spandrio challenged a roomful of local residents to consider the consequences if the Ojai Valley, which has a population of 30,000, ran out of water.

Right now that seems unlikely. Lake Casitas is only 37 percent full, but according to Russ Baggerly, a board director with the Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD), the area’s largest supplier, it holds enough water for about five years.

It’s the valley’s long-term future that may be the biggest concern, however.

Ojai does not currently import any water. About 80 miles northwest of Los Angeles, at the southern border of the Los Padres National Forest, it has been reliant on two local sources. But that could soon change. The Ojai Valley is one of many communities across California looking to diversify their portfolios to cope with the expected impacts of climate change on water resources.

Current Conditions

The CMWD has started to investigate projects that would diversify the city’s water portfolio, bolstering its resiliency to drought and making future supplies reliable. At present, the city is supplied by two sources: groundwater and Lake Casitas, with a 237,761 acre-foot capacity.

The Ojai Valley has several small water agencies and farmers who rely on groundwater while the CMWD controls the water in Lake Casitas. Depending on various factors such as drought, seasonal rainfall and operational issues, those growers and small agencies may tap into the CMWD’s source as a backup to their groundwater wells. So the number of people that the district serves at any given time fluctuates, though the number in Casitas’ district area is approximately 70,000 and the total of planted acres is 5,000.

Low water levels in Lake Casitas several years ago. Despite most of the state being out of drought, the Ventura County reservoir is only at 36 percent. (Casitas Municipal Water District)

Prior to June of this year, the CMWD had about 3,200 connections, but that figure has nearly doubled to around 6,100 since the district bought out the Golden State Water Company, which had provided water to the city of Ojai, and took on the agency’s wells. The city’s water system gets about a quarter of its supply from Lake Casitas and the rest from groundwater. During this past drought, many farmers and smaller water agencies in the valley using groundwater became wholly dependent on supplies from Casitas.

“The dam and the reservoir are performing as designed. It is of concern how low the lake is, but we still have enough water for a number of years even if it doesn’t rain,” said Baggerly. “We’ve been saying this for a long time, but it still doesn’t ease people’s angst about what the lake looks like right now.”

Ojai is still in moderate drought conditions, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, even though it received about 36 percent above average rainfall this past year.

“[This] is very different in terms of what the rest of the state received. The storms either went north or went south and missed us,” said Ron Merckling, the CMWD’s water conservation and public affairs manager. “We really had one good storm that allowed for diversions into Lake Casitas, but the rest of the rainfall did replenish the groundwater in the Ojai Basin.”

This year’s above-average rainfall in the Ojai Valley and the headwaters of the local Ventura River watershed added about five years of supply to the basin. There are about 130 wells drilled into it, providing water to residents and businesses and to irrigate tree crops, mostly avocados and oranges.

There is concern, however, that current groundwater extraction levels from the local basins are not managed adequately to provide for future security of supply, according to the Surfrider Foundation’s Ventura campaign coordinator, Paul Jenkin. Jordan Kear, a hydrogeologist and consultant for the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency (OBGMA), refutes the charge. He said that the OBGMA’s monitoring in combination with the conjunctive use of the local groundwater and surface supplies, conservation, precipitation intensity and the high recharge capacity of the basin maintain its sustainability.

Planning for the Future

Historically, when Ojai has faced critically low water levels, it has developed local supplies or examined options for new ones. Lake Casitas, for instance, was built in 1958 as a backup supply to groundwater after a severe drought dried up numerous wells.

Over the past two years the CMWD has voted to fund studies into two potential projects for augmenting Ojai’s supply. The first entails using imports from the State Water Project (SWP) through a connection via Calleguas Municipal Water District’s system. But it is not clear how that arrangement would work.

The CMWD, along with two other suppliers, shares a contracted amount of 20,000 acre-feet from the SWP, but it has never used any of the water because so far there has been no financially viable way to bring it to the city – although deepening concern now may make the price tag more palatable. The CMWD’s slice of the pie is 5,000 acre-feet, which is a sizable amount considering that during the 2016-17 fiscal year, a period of mandatory water cutbacks, the district sold a little under 12,000 acre-feet.

But cost isn’t the only concern with this option. Delivery of water through the SWP originates in the Sierra Nevada and its reliability can be affected by snowpack variations as well as regulatory requirements in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta where the water is pumped south. Then there is the estimated $15 million infrastructure cost and the wheeling charge – the cost of transferring the resource from one water agency’s system to another.

“You could look at our system and say, ‘Wow, that is really unique. We’re looking to connect to State Water for reliability and everyone else is running from it because of all the problems with it,’” said Merckling. “But we just have a different circumstance. The basic thing is that we are doing the same thing from a different perspective. We are diversifying our portfolio as much as possible and diversification creates greater sustainability.”

The other proposal turns to groundwater in a local mountainous formation as a possible backup supply during dry spells. In the Santa Ynez mountains west of Ojai lies the underground sandstone Matilija Formation, which may hold between 29,000 and 200,000 acre-feet of water, according to a 2016 preliminary analysis.

The proposed project would use horizontal bore holes to extract water that would either replenish Lake Casitas or be treated and put directly into the distribution system. The CMWD would use this option only during times of drought and allow for recharge during wet periods. Scientific investigations are being conducted for an Environmental Impact Report that will accompany the project.

“It’s going to be an amazing scientific achievement if it can be pulled off,” said Spandrio.

The environmental impact of the project is also a concern for the Surfrider’s Jenkin, who worries whether sucking out the groundwater from the Matilija Formation would dry up natural springs upon which some wildlife and plants depend. Baggerly said a preliminary examination suggests that extraction may not affect surface flows.

While everybody agrees on the need to diversify Ojai’s water portfolio, Merckling emphasized conservation as the cheapest and most effective solution. In fact, the CMWD’s users have reduced their water usage by more than 40 percent since 2013.

Merckling noted that conservation has the capacity to save at least as much water as the SWP connection and the Matilija Formation project.

“But [conservation] is having a great impact on our [agricultural] customers,” he added. “They have taken out fields. They are not replanting … If we continue to go through this drought, we would have to ask for further reductions in demand, which would have even greater economic impacts.”

Several Ojai Valley farmers have left fields fallow and removed low-yielding trees. The CMWD’s rates have also risen and some commercial and urban users were fined for using too much water during a mandatory conservation period since 2015.

Some local residents have found their own interim solutions.

Permaculturist Connor Jones, for example, has installed a groundwater recharge demonstration project on his property for other local growers to see. It features a million-gallon-capacity retaining pond made from a small earthen dam placed on a natural depression, as well as various ditches, berms and terraces designed to catch and store water that would otherwise run off. Despite the drought, the pond has retained water all year round.

“One of the greatest potential solutions for hydrating the valley’s aquifer is to use agricultural land for stormwater infiltration,” said Jones. “If all the orchards were used for sinking water instead of shedding, then the landowners can use that infiltrated water in the form of groundwater – in essence, replenishing the source they draw from.”

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