News

News

State attorney general slams city of Ventura for water suit

web Screen Shot 2021 02 05 at 9.59.15 AM copy
First page of four-page letter from state Attorney General Xavier Becerra to city of Ventura attorneys and others.

Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter

The state of California is urging lawyers for the city of Ventura not to rush into litigation in the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper case that involves thousands of Ojai Valley and Ventura residents.

Writing Jan. 26 on behalf of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s Office asked attorneys to wait on requesting a schedule for holding an evidentiary hearing in the case.

The hearing would decide whether Los Angeles County Superior Court should enter a proposed physical solution as a judgement in the case.

A negotiated settlement, rather than litigation, is in all parties’ best interest, the letter stated.

In the letter, Becerra’s office expressed concerns with several procedural issues that it says require discussion before the city of Ventura requests the court schedule an evidentiary hearing.

At the top of the attorney general’s list of issues are the pending results of studies on the flow needs of species in the watershed and the connection between groundwater and surface water in the watershed. The Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Watershed Criteria Report is scheduled to be completed this year, while the water board’s modeling work is scheduled to be finished in 2022.

According to the letter from Becerra’s office, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the water board can’t support a rushed judgement before the work has been finished, reviewed and discussed by the parties. “We urge you to wait until that important work is complete, and can be digested by all concerned, before the stay is lifted and we start litigating anything in this case,” the letter stated.

The letter also expressed concern that the city of Ventura has not completed its service of all named parties in the case, with more than 400 cross-respondents remaining to be served.

Not including the yet-to-be-served parties runs the risk of depriving those parties of due process. “The court should not start moving down the path toward entering your proposed physical solution as a judgement as you have proposed without first ensuring all those parties have been served, and are able to express their views on this process.”

The city’s claim over surface water rights, in addition to groundwater rights, has never been a finding of the court, and without such a finding the proposed physical solution can’t be resolved, the letter stated.

The letter also raised questions about the level of support for the proposed physical solution from groundwater extractors, alleged uncertainty inherent in the physical solution, and the need to come up with a hearing schedule that reflects the challenges presented by COVID-19.

If any date for an evidentiary hearing is set, the Attorney General’s Office asked that it be set in the November 2022 to January 2023 time frame. “That would still give us three to six months to negotiate before we started with motion practice and discovery,” the letter stated. “Those few months might not be enough time to reach a settlement, but we could at least try to make progress.”

 

For the past four months, the city of Ventura and the other proposing parties have met and conferred with interested parties regarding the proposed physical solution, and those meet-and-confer discussions will continue, according to Ventura Assistant Attorney Miles Hogan. “However, we feel it is the appropriate time to move forward with a hearing schedule for the court to consider the proposed physical solution,” Hogan wrote in an email to the Ojai Valley News.

Hogan wrote, “State agencies want to complete their studies so they can impose flow restrictions throughout the watershed, which will impact everyone. The city has always maintained that the best path forward is a collaborative, locally developed water solution that considers input from the state, but is not mandated by the state.”

Bert Rapp, general manager of the Ventura River Water District, one of the agencies meeting and conferring on the proposed physical solution, wrote in an email to the OVN: “We were very pleased to finally receive the response from the state. We have been asking them for their input for months but we only got silence in return.

We don’t see any project killers in their response. We look forward to their much-delayed release of their surface water-groundwater and flow studies so then we can finally see what the differences may be and can begin discussing them and come to a reasonable agreement.”

Casitas Municipal Water District General Manager Michael Flood told the OVN that the state attorney general’s letter is a closed-session matter for the District and there was little he could comment on. “But I will say that it appears from the letter that the state of California is intent on including the upcoming results from its in-stream flow study on the Ventura River in any outcome the court process may provide,” he said.

Ojai City Manager James Vega told the OVN that the city shares concerns that some parties in the case appear to be rushing the settlement negotiations. “The city of Ojai’s position is that the long-term solution to this complex problem lies in locally developed, locally governed solutions reached through collaborative discussions with all of the needed parties and urges all parties to continue negotiating toward a durable solution,” Vega said in an email.

 

Not a subscriber?  choose your subscription plan.