Ojai water wars: The battle is launched

By Lindsay Nielson
Did you get one? No, not the Publishers Clearing House notice, but it came in a large white certified mail envelope. It was addressed to more than 10,000 Ojai area property owners. It was a 75-page lawsuit and summons to join the city of Ventura’s water war party. You’ve been served!
In 2014, the environmental group, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, saw fit to sue the city of Ventura over the issue of the city’s pumping in the lower Ventura River because it alleged that it had an impact on the steelhead fishery, which had, in years past, utilized the Ventura River as its habitat. The city then crossed-complained (sued) other significant users and pumpers in the Ventura River, including Casitas Municipal Water District, Ventura River Water District and Meiners Oaks Water District and a handful of other substantial players. After a legal challenge, the Court of Appeal said that the city could do that and bring other water users into this lawsuit.
On advice of counsel, the city decided that it was tactically better to turn this lawsuit into a major adjudication of water rights for users of water in the larger Ventura River and Ojai water basins. To assure this major legal battle could proceed, the city, in December 2018, approved a contract with its lawyers for $1.8 million to fund its war chest. (At that same time, the annual legal budgets for Ventura River Water District and Meiners Oaks Water District were each $15,000 per year.)
An adjudication is a very complex, lengthy and expensive process. It can, and often does, exceed 10 to 15 years. The court usually will appoint a “water master” who will have to go through piles of research on water rights, engineering studies and a multitude of hydrology, environmental and other significant data to arrive at a decision as to the rights and appropriate use of the very limited water that is part of the Ventura River system. This all costs a lot of money as the experts, tons of lawyers and court costs continue to balloon.  
At the same time, the parties can take a parallel course seeking what is known as “a physical solution” to the fair and rational division of this limited resource that can meet the “reasonable and beneficial use of water” standard that the court demands. This would also include the needs of the fishery that started this whole thing. (An interesting side note: The city of Ventura recently made an initial settlement over the Channelkeeper lawsuit, which all parties are agreeing to work cooperatively on, for an interim physical solution toward maintaining a flow of water that would suffice the need for the migratory steelhead trout. And, oh yes, the city agreed to pay the Channelkeeper’s legal fees of $850,000 with another $160,000 to be considered in the future.
This is all taking place at the same time the state has ordered that users undertake a groundwater sustainability study. It is currently under way and is to be completed by the end of this year. It would seem that somehow the cart is in front of the horse here. That state-mandated work should, in this writer’s opinion, be completed to provide expert hydrological, environmental and modeling of the river based on its historical flows and rainfalls. We appear to be at the possible end of a seven-year drought. All of the water customers of all three of the major water agencies serving the Ojai area have adopted detailed drought rules. Last year, Lake Casitas reached its nadir when it dropped to 30 percent of its capacity. The citizens of the Ojai area responded to these water districts’ pleas for conservation by cutting back water use by roughly 40 percent! And remember, in the Ojai area, if water doesn’t fall from the sky, we don’t have any other source for this precious commodity.
In November 2018, I asked the question: “Who is in charge at the city?” Why did it seem like a good idea to file a lawsuit against more than 10,000 citizens in Ojai? Another interesting fact. It will cost you $435 to file your answer if you choose to actively participate in this litigation. (The city did ask the court to waive this appearance fee, but the judge declined.)
Instead of suing the major water districts and everyone else, why didn’t they just pick up the phone to discuss solutions? Why turn this into a gigantic legal morass that has upset and confused many people? We are facing a common enemy that affects everyone, including the fish.
If anything I have learned in my long life, it is if there is a common major problem, including water shortages and drought, people can put their heads together and tackle the problem and come up with workable solutions. It doesn’t have to come from a courtroom. The telephone numbers of the three major water districts impacting the Ventura River are in the phone book. Oh wait, there are no phone books any longer. Well, they can be Googled. Instead, the city seems to have its outside litigation lawyers’ telephone numbers on speed dial.
All of this litigation will not result in one more gallon of water being produced.


— Lindsay F. Nielson is general counsel of the Ventura River Water District and Meiners Oaks Water District.