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Water suit continues, major parties work out plan

web City of Ventura Physical Solution copy
Image courtesy city of Ventura

 

Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter
As the deadline for property owners to respond in a water adjudication lawsuit approaches, the city of Ventura and other major parties this week released a proposed local solution in the case.
The “physical solution,” a proposed plan to protect the Ventura River watershed and those who rely on it, was a collaboration between the city of Ventura, the Ventura River Water District, Meiners Oaks Water District, Taylor Ranch, Rancho Matilija Mutual Water Company and other agricultural water users.
The proposal does not end the lawsuit and has no bearing on water rights or allocations, but outlines steps that need to be taken to return the watershed habitat to good condition, and then keep it that way.
Oct. 30 is the deadline for property owners to review the proposed document and decide whether they want to be involved in the case.
“The beauty of this proposal is it does not try to litigate water rights,” said VRWD general manager Bert Rapp.
“It focuses on making improvements to the watershed and the habitat. It protects historic flows in critical reaches of the river where it’s most important for the habitat. This gets to the core issues and can bring this whole adjudication to completion.”
The plan does require that water users report their water use, according to the city of Ventura.
Components of the proposed solution include removing barriers that block access by endangered steelhead trout to critical habitat, and improving the habitat so the fish have places to spawn, rear and grow.

 

The solution also entails creating programs to reduce non-native plant and fish species that are harming the steelhead or their habitat, better understanding the hydrology of the watershed and developing ways to monitor water quality and the health of the steelhead.
The coalition of large water users, the “consumptive users group,” expects the long-term costs of implementing the physical solution to be approximately $1.85 million per year.
So far, the city of Ventura and the consumptive users group have funded the adjudication, but following adoption of the physical solution and an 18-month development phase, all water users in the watershed will need to help pay for the plan’s implementation, according to the city.
“It’s going to cost money to take care of the endangered steelhead trout and to solve the environmental issues that are hindering it,” Rapp said. “You either spend several million dollars fighting about it for 20 years, or you put the money toward productive work.”
A proposed management committee will need to come up with a fair way for all parties to share the costs. “We’ve got an incredible process that’s going to be set up here, that will be very fair to everyone, in the end,” Rapp said.
Rapp estimates the cost of implementing the plan will mean an increase of $3 to $5 per month for water users in the Ojai Valley.
In March, Casitas Municipal Water District announced in a news release that it was withdrawing from the “attorney-led mediation” with the city of Ventura over the lawsuit, saying “no agreement exists nor is anticipated that is even remotely acceptable to Casitas.”
CMWD general manager Michael Flood told the Ojai Valley News Sept. 16 he had reviewed the proposed physical solution, but, citing ongoing litigation and the advice of legal counsel, he declined to comment on the documents.
Flood said the Casitas Board of Directors has a closed session on the case set for Sept. 23. “I’m guessing that that will be a centerpiece of what we’re talking about during that closed session.”
Would Casitas consider returning to the mediation at some point? “It was a policy decision for the board to get out of the mediation, and it would be a policy decision for the board to go back in,” Flood said.

 

The current plan calls for proponents to ask a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to consider approval of the proposed physical solution in 2021.
Richard Hajas, who serves on the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency Board of Directors and is running unopposed for the CMWD Division 5 board seat, reviewed the plan and questioned its chances for success.
“On the face of it, the plan doesn’t look terrible,” Hajas said. “But what guarantee do we have that these agencies are going to work together to make it work, or is it just going to put us in a revolving door back to the court every time they have a disagreement?”
The decision will have to be made, Hajas said, to either pay for the plan or continue to pay attorneys to fight the case in court. “The river is a mess. It hasn’t been well-managed, there’s no doubt about that. But whether this is going to satisfy all the parties, that’s a whole different question.”
The financial burden of the proposed local solution on Casitas is potentially significant, as is the financial burden on users of the Ojai Basin, according to Hajas, a member of the Ojai Valley Water Advisory Group and board member of Ojai Friends for Locally Owned Water (F.L.O.W.). “The reality of it is that, either way, it’s going to cost all of us, in higher water rates,” he said.
The consumptive users group is advocating for the physical solution in order to both protect local water rights and prevent a state-mandated solution that would otherwise result, according to the city of Ventura.
“The idea that we can improve the habitat with the existing water use is a good idea, but I’m still not convinced it’s going to insulate us from what the state is planning in regulating flows in the creeks,” Hajas said. “It may help our case, if we’re able to actually do all these things, but there are no assurances.”
The court set the next status conference in the case for Nov. 16. Meanwhile, the city of Ventura is not asking for attorney’s fees, city officials stated.
“It’s a shame the local water agencies can’t cooperate on a management plan for the watershed without adding another layer of bureaucracy and oversight by a court,” Hajas said.
To view the proposed physical solution and supporting documents, visit www.venturariver.com.

 

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