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Adjudication suit: Surrendering responsibility for managing our water resources

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By Richard Hajas, Special to the Ojai Valley News
Will local water agencies surrender management of our water resources to a Los Angeles court? Or will the agencies work cooperatively to better manage our water supply and our local streams and rivers?
Background
In 2014, nonprofit environmental organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper sued the city of Ventura and the State Water Resources Control Board for failing to maintain minimum dry-season stream flows in the Ventura River. The Channelkeeper claimed the city was adversely impacting the preservation of steelhead (a protected species) on the Ventura River Watershed by pumping water from the river. The city took the position that it was not the only water user on the river responsible for the low stream flows.  In 2018, the city filed an adjudication lawsuit against everyone on the watershed, causing all water users to join in addressing the Channelkeeper’s complaint.
Every property on the watershed received a notice of the lawsuit, creating confusion, anger and fear.  No one in an official capacity would advise the property owners on what action, if any, should be taken.  No one in an official capacity would even discuss the lawsuit. Unfortunately, that is the nature of lawsuits. All parties want to protect their interests, no one will reveal their position or strategy and the parties with enough financial resources hire attorneys to direct their defense.
The watershed is the only source of water for western Ventura and the Ojai Valley; and that source is solely dependent on local rainfall. Three consecutive years of drought result in supply shortages for three of the four major water agencies on the river: Ventura River Water District, Meiners Oaks Water District and the city, as well as agricultural water users. Five years of drought, as we experienced from 2012 to 2016, produce critical water shortages for everyone on the river. Not surprisingly, these drought periods also result in depleted stream flows. 
It is all about stream flows
The lawsuit is only a prelude to even greater demands by the state to improve stream flows throughout the watershed. The state is developing minimum stream flow standards for all the state’s major watersheds. Specific standards for the river are expected to be announced within the next two years.  Water production from the river could be significantly reduced by these standards and create a greater demand for Lake Casitas water, a lake with chronic low storage levels.  
Adjudication or settlement agreement
The only two options on the table to address the problem are an adjudication of all water on the watershed or a proposed settlement agreement released by Ventura on Sept. 15.
A full adjudication would allocate specific water rights to each user on the watershed. The state would be assured that minimum stream flows are maintained. The court, through an appointed water master, would then govern all water use and settle all disputes. Because of the complexity of state water laws, the decision would take years to be finalized and the result would be few winners and many losers.

 

The supporters of the settlement claim it will avoid a full adjudication and satisfy the state’s river flow requirements by improving the steelhead habitat. The settlement proposes that all water users jointly fund projects to create enhanced spawning areas, deeper pools for improved dry season fish habitat, removal of barriers to fish passage, and removal of invasive species, such as, Arundo, which consumes large amounts of water and acts as a barrier to fish migration. The supporters of the settlement claim these projects will prevent or at least reduce the state’s anticipated demand for higher stream flows.  These projects would be governed by a “Management Committee” with representatives from local water agencies. The “Management Committee” will not be an autonomous local organization; it will be an arm of the court. It will report to the court and be subject to the court’s oversight.  
The parties that have publicly endorsed the settlement are all direct water users on the river. They all pump water primarily during the dry season (April through December). Casitas Municipal Water District left the negotiations earlier this year and has not endorsed the settlement. Casitas only takes water from the river during the wet season when river flows are high. The amount it diverts is already limited by U.S. Fish and Wildlife requirements to meet minimum wet-season flows for steelhead migration. However, if the settlement supporters’ dry-season water supplies are reduced, they will look to Lake Casitas to supplement their water needs.
Surrendering local control and responsibility
The proposed projects in the settlement to enhance the fishery habitat could go a long way to improve the watershed and offer the opportunity for existing stream flows to provide greater benefit to the health of the river. Do we really need a Los Angeles court to force us to act responsibly? Do we need to add to our water costs to fund the administration of a water master or Management Committee?
The Ventura River Watershed already has six government agencies responsible for water. Do we need another layer of government, a layer with the primary role of refereeing the others? Or is there a third alternative? Can one of these exiting agencies step up, offer alternatives, and provide the leadership to better mange our local water resources for the benefit of everyone?

 

— Richard Hajas of Ojai is a retired water resource manager, current member of the board of directors for Ojai Flow, Ojai Water Advisory Group, and Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency.

 

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