Casitas water issue heats up
By Jesse Phelps
When the National Marine Fisheries
Service issued its biological opinion on the Robles Diversion
fish passage on March 31, Casitas Municipal Water District was
left with two options: prepare to start construction or look
at legal action.
While Monday's special meeting of the board of directors provided
no definitive answer to the course they would take, hints abounded.
Board member Bill Hicks asked general manager John Johnson whether
a delay in deciding would have an impact on potential legal action
by Casitas and Johnson assured him it would not, leading many
in the audience to assume Casitas is seriously considering fighting
the mandate to build the passage. At meeting's end, the only
formal decision was to table the issue until the board's regular
The decision not to make a decision is seen by local environmental
advocates as as an indicator that Casitas will continue to employ
whatever tactics it can to delay the inevitable.
Casitas is still standing by figures that indicate water release
requirements set down by the National Marine Fisheries Service
will exceed its safe yield. The primary number of concern is
the 2,000 to 3,200 acre-feet Casitas says the passage will require
on an annual basis.
California Trout representative Jim Edmondson, in a prepared
statement to the board, pointed out that nowhere in any scientific
documentation does the water release requirement approach those
figures. "I'd like to bring to your attention to the fact
that the consultant, Entrix, in their reports, indicated that
that would not be greater than 1,731 acre-feet," he said.
Casitas general manager John Johnson didn't seem convinced by
those figures and expressed doubt about the National Marine Fisheries
Service's promises to allow for mitigating factors such as droughts.
"The drought protection is written," he said, "But
frankly, it's very unclear and likely that there's no protection
In a resolution presented to the board by Johnson, he requested
that they authorize him to call a hearing for the purpose of
declaring a water shortage emergency on April 23, another sign
Casitas intends to put up a fight. But the board, wanting time
to look more at the evidence and documentation, elected to table
Board member Jim Coultas took a more proactive stance. He asked
his fellow board members to consider the possibility of additional
grant funding through Proposition 50. "I think we should
look into whether we can qualify for that grant money,"
"We need to move ahead," agreed Johnson, "so we
can capture as much grant funding as we can." Johnson expressed
concerns about the timetable to build, saying it would take more
time than originally hoped, and the possibility of acquiring
"One of the suggestions
we're making, if we do decide to go ahead, is that we get going
on the revised plan that's based upon the biological opinion
and that we shoot for trying to have the bids come in (for construction)
in about 75 days."
Several speakers were on hand to offer their viewpoints. Russ
Baggerly of the Environmental Coalition of Ventura County took
exception with Johnson's characterization in his resolution that
Casitas had been "coerced" into agreeing to the fish
passage. He pointed out that representatives of Casitas had been
involved in the process and present at all meetings since step
one without previously mentioning having been coerced.
"I find that language a
bit offensive," he said. He also took issue with Johnson's
use of the word "property" in connection with the water
in the channel.
"It is incredibly presumptuous
that this board and its general manager would consider the water
that you have license to regulate as property," Baggerly
Local fly fisherman and activist Larry Yuva talked about conservation
as an alternative for Casitas if it thinks it's on the verge
of a water shortage emergency.
After listening to public comments and discussing the issue,
the board adjourned to closed session under the fear of litigation.
The public discussion will continue today at the regular meeting
at the Casitas offices in Oak View.
Meanwhile, Edmondson has had enough of the delays.
"Intent is at the center of the framework of our laws,"
he said. "It's how society differentiates between a minor
offense and major offense. First, second- and third-degree murder,
both in the charge and, if convicted, the penalty, are associated
with intent. First-degree murder is differentiated from second
because it's consciously and deliberately carried out. It's premeditated.
"Mr. Johnson wrote and circulated a proposal with an intent
statement to try to whip up the public, as was done in the Klamath
Basin, in order to cause controversy and discredit the agencies
and the pending biological opinion. You can fool me once; maybe
it was an inadvertent error to hire a public relations firm for
the purposes of misleading the public and disparaging the agencies.
"Then Mr. Johnson goes and meets with all of the agencies
which his RFP says he's going to discredit in a negotiation session
in October and knowingly, consciously and deliberately does not
inform all of his negotiating partners of what he's done,"
Edmondson said. "Premeditation three: Mr. Johnson produces
hydrologic models, both for the board and for a public meeting
in early December, which show an extremely low lake level without
the fish ladder.
Yet Mr. Johnson knowingly, consciously
and deliberately produced that hydrologic depiction without incorporating
specific board direction through an ordinance in 1992 about water
conservation. Had he done that, it would have been entirely different.
How many turn-my-cheeks do we give here? Maybe it's time for
a regime change."
David Pritchett of Southern California Steelhead Organization
says the bigger issues are Casitas violating the terms of a settlement
agreement reached with the Environmental Defense Center and California
Trout and it's passing of the literal buck to its water customers.
"Over the last few years everybody was living up those settlements,"
Pritchett said, referring to Casitas' pledge to build the ladder
in exchange for not being sued over blocking fish passage.
"But during the whole course
of this, it's become clear that Casitas didn't care and it's
losing its grants from California Fish and Game and the State
Coastal Conservancy. Johnson never wanted to commit the water.
The state agencies finally got
wise, saying you can't have a ladder without enough water to
see that it works. Now Casitas is upset and they're setting up
grounds for a lawsuit. All that does is violate this settlement
"Because they're taking this confrontational approach, the
grants are expiring," Pritchett continued. "There's
no way can they build the whole fish ladder to take advantage
of the second grant of one-and-a-quarter million dollars, which
expires in 11 months. How are they going to build the ladder
now that they've got everyone mad at them and their ability to
receive further grants will be compromised? They're setting up
the rate payers to pay the entire bill."
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