conditions fuel fire fears
by Chris Wilson
With recent foggy, cool weather, much of the landscape may
appear lush and green throughout the Ojai Valley, but the chaparral
tells a different story.
According to Ventura County officials, moisture content in new
plant growth is about half the projected average and without
the prospect of a decent rainstorm on the horizon, the whole
valley could be a veritable tinderbox by June or July.
California counties such as Riverside and San Bernardino have
already ushered in their fire seasons, months before the usual
dates. And earlier-than-expected blazes in Arizona are worrying
firefighters that this could be a long and smoky summer.
The VCFD rates plant moisture levels on a 200 point scale, said
VCFD Wildland Fire Officer Terry Raley. Based on averages taken
every year for the past two decades, those moisture levels should
be in the mid to high 160s. Currently they are between 83 and
84 percent, several points lower than 2001 levels taken at the
same time this past year and dangerously close to the 60 percent
critical mark which usually doesn't show up until late fall.
"We'll be looking pretty good until June or July,"
Raley said. "But we've already seen some Santa Ana winds,
that's extremely different."
Kent Field, a meteorologist with the Ventura County Air Pollution
Control District, said rainfall levels are about 40 percent of
normal- with only 7.55 inches fallen to date, Field said. As
an aside, however, Field did note the valley's air quality is
"We're working our way out of a job," Field said. "Our
air is getting clearer and clearer."
Low rainfall levels, however, don't necessarily mean drought.
Scott Holder, a hydrologist with Ventura County Flood Control,
said most people hear the word drought and they think they won't
be able to wash their cars, or that they'll need to have their
lawns spray-painted green because of mandated alternate watering
days. Neither is likely to happen this season.
A good snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains will bring additional
water to the area, if needed, through the aqueduct. Reservoir
levels, such as Lake Casitas are also in good shape.
John Johnson, general manager of Casitas Municipal Water District,
said the lake is so big for its customer base, that it's rated
on a 20-year dry cycle. This means that after it reaches its
spill level of 254,000 acre feet, average yearly usage of 21,000
acre feet will provide enough water for 20 years. Casitas spilled
about four years ago, Johnson said, leaving at least a decade
and a half of water supply for the valley and the city of Ventura.
Currently the lake is at about 200,000 acre feet, Johnson said.
But wildfire concerns still come back around to new spring growth
and moisture levels in plants.
Holder said cattle ranchers will likely have a tough time feeding
their livestock on the mountain grasses this summer.
It's this continuing concern that keeps firefighting experts
like Raley busy cutting fuel breaks around the valley. Soon,
he and other county, state and federal fire officials will be
burning brush piles near upper Foothill Road.
Under Raley's guidance, the California Youth Authority and other
agencies have provided manpower to cut and maintain a fuel break
that runs between Highway 33 and the Upper Ojai slightly north
of the Shelf Road trail.
"It's great, kids are working and paying their debt to society
and learning fire fighting skills," Raley said. "We
work 'em all summer long. Hey, you gotta keep the lawn mowed.
We're doing a pretty good job protecting Ojai and the Upper Ojai
use up for big customers
by Bret Bradigan
It's a double bind for big water users. They can expect to
pay more as they use more.
Most of that expense comes from the higher electrical rates.
As Jim Coultas, Casitas Municipal Water District director, said,
"The water is free. The expense comes from moving it around."
Storage isn't the problem, Coultas said. Casitas Lake was designed
to withstand seven or eight years of severe drought. The lake
holds 200,000 acre-feet, within 80 percent of its capacity. They
typically use about 20,000 acre-feet each year, with another
6,000 acre-feet lost to evaporation.
An acre-foot of water is about 325,000 gallons, and provides
the needs of an average household for one year.
Casitas water rates aren't going up to compensate for the drought
conditions. Coultas said the board made a wise decision years
ago to peg rate hikes with cost of living increases - "rate
leveling" he called it. That way, unusual circumstances
don't require exorbitant rate hikes.
Unfortunately, while water prices remain steady, pumping charges
drive up costs to growers. Tony Thacher with Friend's Ranch has
been irrigating "all of 2002. It's never rained enough to
do any good."
Coultas has his own rain-related expenses. On his farm, it costs
$150 a day to irrigate his 160 acres. It costs him, with electrical
bills for pumping and the cost of the metered water, anywhere
from $500 to $8,500 a month to keep his citrus in marketable
And it gets more expensive to pump that water as the dry conditions
continue. "Wells are about 50 feet lower at this time of
year than for the last five years," Coultas said, as the
irrigation pumping draws down the Ojai Valley's aquifer.
Thacher said the county's agricultural commissioner used to claim
that each inch of rain was worth $1 million to Ventura County
growers. "I'm sure it's much higher than that now."
Technology has been a key ally for the famed Ojai Valley Inn
& Spa Golf Course, said Public Relations Director Merrill
Williams. Several years ago, they installed an "evapo-transpiration
system," she said, with 15 sensors arranged around the 200-acre
course "that monitor the evaporation of moisture from the
turf, and replace the water where it needs to be replaced."
Even so, water prices have gone up, though just slightly, she
said. And with plans to cancel the course's September overseeding
tradition, which uses an extra 100,000 gallons of water, they
should be on par with last year's water costs.
Water costs are only one of the issues affecting local farmers,
Citrus growers have been taking a beating lately at harvest,
Thacher said. Ojai growers are now subject to fluctuations of
the world market, and fewer and fewer are able to compete. For
instance, San Joaquin Valley growers have distinct advantages
in land prices, not to mention that the state of California guarantees
delivery of their water at a third the cost.
"It's a cumulative thing," Thacher said, also mentioning
Ojai's exorbitant land costs. "And water is definitely a
part of it.
"It hurts because the last few years in the citrus business
have been pretty awful," he said.
by Kelly Feser Eells
Reports of drought have left many local residents wondering
what is on tap for them in the coming months, water-wise.
This time last year, rainfall for the valley was at 25 inches;
today, it is barely one-third that. Is water at a premium? If
so, can we expect premium prices for service?
Southern California Water Company, with nearly 3,000 area customers
- with 90 percent of their water coming from four to six company-owned
wells, "augmented by water purchased from the Casitas Municipal
Water District" - was best poised to answer these questions.
Warren Morgan, Coastal Division manager for American States Water
Company, of which SCWC is a subsidiary (see sidebar), oversees
operations in Los Osos, Santa Maria, Simi Valley, and Ojai. Morgan
noted that, while he wasn't employed with SCWC during the last,
"official" drought in the early '90s, any declaration
of drought and/or a call for water rationing has to go before
the Public Utilities Commission first.
"And I don't see that happening," said Morgan. "Groundwater
levels appear to be normal for this time of year."
Morgan also stated that, though "we purchase water from
Casitas on occasion, anyway" the Ojai system's district
manager, Frank Bennett, could provide a more detailed assessment
of the valley's overall water situation. "But, again (significantly
below-average rainfall totals), do not translate to higher bills
at this time."
Bennett concurred. "All of our pumping comes from the groundwater
basin. We don't see any problem right now. There's an ample supply
for a couple of years."
Bennett went on to say that SCWC has never, since its 1927 inception,
been in an emergency situation where it had to enforce water
rationing or extract emergency drinking water from the Casitas
basin. Using Casitas as a reserve, he added, means always "being
prepared. We don't want to tax the system."
Ojai's slow-growth policies are a positive factor in times of
drought, Bennett said, in that the "amount of (water) usage
doesn't change" much. Another positive factor is the residents
themselves. "First of all, every water company has its own
program." In the early '90s, "We went out saying, 'conserve,'
and Ojai did. It was entirely voluntary."
Though rate increases, Bennett concluded, do occur - on average,
every three years - "they're associated with the costs of
running the operation. The power companies," Edison, in
Ojai's case, "have the most dramatic effect on water rates."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
Back to the news
rain gauges and blue winter and spring skies can mean a long,