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Judge asks lawyers for better way to settle water war

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Perry Van Houten, Ojai Valley News senior reporter

For the first time since the document was released, the judge in the Ventura River Watershed Adjudication lawsuit has commented on the proposed physical solution aimed at protecting the watershed.

At the latest case management conference Aug. 16 in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Judge William F. Highberger said he had reviewed the draft document and some of the objections to it.

In his comments, Highberger said it seemed the proponents of the draft physical solution don’t put much value in efforts to “squeeze out more available water” and the document focuses instead on mitigation measures such as the removal of non-native plants and the redistribution of gravel for spawning grounds.

The revised public draft of the proposed physical solution lodged July 12 by the city of Ventura, Ventura River Water District, Meiners Oaks Water District and other large agricultural water users is “basically habitat restoration that will improve the fishery,” Highberger said.

Among comments from parties opposed to the proposed physical solution, there were “more than a few fullthroated objections” to the city of Ventura’s “alleged eagerness to permit development,” Highberger said.

The practice of issuing development permits creates a tendency to need more domestic water, he said.

“The reality, from the city’s perspective, is our use of the river has gone down signifi - cantly over time. We have reduced our consumption from the river greatly,” said Shawn Hagerty, an attorney representing the city of Ventura.

Highberger said connecting to the State Water Project is a process that ought to be sped up. “Why can’t we get the imported water sooner?” he asked. “That seems to be important and doesn’t yet seem to be part of the physical solution.”

But Hagerty said the city of Ventura believes the amount of water in the watershed has historically been enough for the fi sh to be successful, and the reason they’re not successful now is due to other reasons. “And that’s what we need to work on,” he said.

Other fundamental parts of the draft physical solution, Hagerty said, are the removal of Matilija Dam, improvements to the Robles Diversion Facility and at Foster Park, and improvements to road crossings and bridges.

Also during Monday’s status conference, Highberger approved the use of a drone as a substitute for a site visit fi eld trip to the Ventura River Watershed.

When asked again about “a hugely important part of the puzzle,” Deputy District Attorney Marc Melnick, representing the State Water Resources Control Board, told Highberger the agency is on track to release its preliminary draft modeling “in the next couple of weeks.”

According to a schedule set at the July 23 status conference, the city of Ventura will exchange expert reports on Aug. 31. Other major parties, including the State Water Board and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, will do the same on Sept. 24.

Highberger has set the phase 1 trial of the bifurcated case for Feb. 14 at 10 a.m., with a pretrial conference to be held on Feb. 2.

In his remarks to attorneys Monday, Highberger suggested a political solution to the dispute through mediation by an entity such as the Ventura County Board of Supervisors, “rather than dumping it in my lap,” he said.

As for a motion scheduled to be heard on the appointment of an independent hydrology expert in the case, Highberger said he was not ready to conclude that there’s no value to an independent expert.

He set a Sept. 7 deadline for objections to the court hiring a hydrology expert, and Sept. 14 for comments in favor.

The next status conference in the case is set for Monday, Sept. 20 at 9 a.m.

For information on attending court sessions in-person or remotely, visit https://www.lacourt.org/. To learn more about the case, visit: https://bit.ly/3806rfO.

 

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