by Kit Stolz
On the last day of February this year, the meeting room at Casitas Municipal Water District in Oak View was filled to capacity, with dozens of residents and local officials buzzing in anticipation of a new proposal — dubbed the “Three Sisters” plan — to be offered to connect Lake Casitas with the State Water Project.
If implemented, this would be the first time in the history of the region that Ojai — and Casitas which supplies the town and the west side of Ventura with water — has moved to connect its water supply to the rest of California.
Lake Casitas, a reservoir that collects rain and snow from a mountainous watershed well over 200 miles square, supplies approximately 67,000 farmers and residents in Ojai and western Ventura with water. Since the recent drought took hold in 2012 in Ventura County, and became “extreme” in 2016, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, water levels in aquifers and in the reservoir have fallen rapidly. Despite conservation efforts by farmers and residents over the last four years, the lake has fallen to just over one-third of capacity. Water levels in the aquifers of the Ojai Basin, from which farmers pump water for their citrus orchards, are at their lowest levels since 1964, according to the latest report available from the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency. Growers, realtors, businesses, elected officials and citizens in Ojai repeatedly express alarm about the prospect of running dry.
The banter in the Casitas meeting room that afternoon focused on world news headlines about the ominous “Day Zero” in Cape Town, South Africa. Water levels in the principal reservoir for that city of 4 million people had fallen to a mere 13 percent of capacity, and residents’ taps had been turned off.
Steve Wickstrum, the general manager of Casitas, began the meeting by dismissing the comparison.
“This is not Cape Town,” he said. “We are not within a few months of running out of water. At our current reduced rate of consumption we have more than five years of capacity.”
The citizens and water experts in the room were not reassured. For over 200 years western Ventura and the Ojai Valley have been entirely dependent on local water — unlike other major watersheds in Southern California. The communities supported by the Ventura River watershed are the last in Southern California to be 100 percent dependent on local water, according to a 2012 study on sustainability in the region by a team of graduate students from the Bren School at UCSB [pdf].
Although the rains of the winter of 2016-2017 filled reservoirs around the state of California, they barely nudged the water levels in Lake Casitas upward. Multiple atmospheric river storms in Southern California in the aftermath of the Thomas Fire brought downpours that devastated Montecito but still totaled only about half an average winter’s worth of rain. Today the vast southern half of California ranges from “abnormally dry” to “extreme drought,” according to the Drought Monitor. After approximately 11 inches of rain, Western Ventura County is considered to be in a “severe drought.”
For Angelo Spandrio, a Berkeley-educated engineer and Ojai resident who has set out to educate himself on all things related to water in Ojai, it’s not just a paucity of rain — it’s a crisis.
“We’re down to a little over 80,000 acre-feet of water in the lake,” he said. “We can’t afford to go through another five-year drought.”
Spandrio, a self-educated expert with a broad smile and a white beard, works on water issues three hours a day, he says, despite running a consulting business out of his home. He points out that Ojai has been through more than one drought that lasted longer than the most recent severe drought (of 2012-2017). In fact the most severe drought in recent history, which extended from 1946 to the mid-1960s, resulted in the construction of two local dams — Matilija Dam in 1948, which was poorly sited and constructed, and became inoperable due to silting almost immediately; and the dam at Lake Casitas, which was constructed in record time in the mid-1950s by the federal Bureau of Reclamation. As groundwater levels in Ojai during the Eisenhower era plunged to record lows, imperiling local orange groves, Ojai and the federal government mobilized to build a backup water supply sufficient to keep the farmers of Ojai and the residents of western Ventura in water even through a 21-year-long drought.
Spandrio thinks it’s no longer enough.
“I’m a data-oriented person,” he said. “I started going to meetings at Casitas. Probably the first impression I had was of how the Casitas management intimidated the public, or tried to. They speak in an opaque language. The meetings are not recorded or broadcast. They take place at 3 in the afternoon, when most people can’t possibly attend. Press coverage is almost nonexistent. People didn’t seem to much care that we could run out of water. So I started compiling the data and making graphs. Casitas lost about 117,000 acre-feet of water during the drought — that’s about half their total capacity.”
Spandrio may be a self-educated water expert, but plenty of other accredited water managers and officials in the region are no less alarmed. Bert Rapp, an engineer who manages the Ventura River Water District, which serves just under 6,000 customers in Oak View and Casitas Springs, and which relies on Lake Casitas when the wells run dry, expresses much the same fear.
“It’s often said that history repeats itself,” he pointed out. “If you look at the history of rain in the Ojai Basin you will see that last year looks a lot like 1962. We had some good rain last year, just as they did in 1962, but previously they had had four years of drought, as we did, and then they had another few years of drought. Finally they had the floods of 1969, and that ended it. If you look at the history of California over the last 10,000 years or so, you will see that we have had more than one drought that lasted 50 years or longer. I think we have to prepare as if this is the sixth year of a 50-year drought.”
IS IT A DROUGHT? OR A WATER MANAGEMENT CRISIS?
Over the last five years Casitas has encouraged and required water conservation. As of July 2016, when the lake fell to 50 percent of capacity, Casitas declared a Stage 3 drought, meaning that all customers, agricultural and residential, had their allocations cut by 10 percent. Penalties for exceeding their allocations were quintupled, outdoor watering was limited to one day a week for residential customers, and — according to Ron Merckling, the public affairs resource manager — Casitas recorded some of the best conservation numbers in the state. Casitas customers today use 40 percent less water than they did in 2011.
“The water supply to population ratio is better for Casitas’ customers than just about anywhere in the state of California,” Merckling said. “The Ojai Basin contains roughly 80,000 acre-feet [of water] with about 2,000 acre-feet being utilized by Ojai customers per year. Lake Casitas is at 85,000 acre-feet with about 12,000 acre-feet of demand a year.”
At the other end of the Ojai Valley, the charismatic young farmer and teacher Connor Jones makes a surprisingly similar point. When he speaks on water in panel discussions and in video Facebook posts he puts air quotes around “drought” and lightly mocks the concept.
“I did some rough calculations on the storm we had on March 21,” he said in a Facebook video post. “According to the county, at the peak flow of the storm we had 500 cubic feet per second (CFS) of water flowing out of the basin down the Ventura River to the ocean. That’s about 3,740 gallons. If you look at the average flow on this day over the last 58 years, it’s about 96 CFS, or 700 gallons per second. Do a little math with that and you end up with 60 million gallons. Do some rough calculations with average household use and you find that in one average 24-hour period we lose enough water to supply all of Ojai for half the year. I think we may have a water management and storage crisis, rather than a water scarcity situation.”
Jones teaches the idea of permaculture, an agricultural method developed in the dry lands of Australia, which preaches a “slow it, spread it, sink it” method for infiltrating water into the land for later use. Los Angeles, the city famous around the world (thanks to Chinatown) for water importation, startled water managers last summer by pledging to spend up to $11 billion to similarly capture and infiltrate stormwater into local aquifers, a plan called Resilient Los Angeles. The city wants to reduce its importation of water from northern rivers via the State Water Project by 50 percent by 2024.
Stephanie Pincetl, an Ojai resident and a professor at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, specializes in the study of water infrastructure in California. She oversaw a National Science Foundation study on water retention in Los Angeles; she supports the Los Angeles plan and has doubts about the wisdom of connecting to state water for Casitas. Yet she makes no bones about the difficult challenge facing Ojai. She points out that we live in a dry climate, but don’t want to face up to that, and that the hotter summers and the drier falls of global warming aren’t helping. Rethinking investments in conventional orchards and “East Coast-style landscapes” will likely be necessary — but also expensive and difficult.
“If you have a drinking problem, you have to stop drinking,” she said. “You can’t say, oh, it’s not my fault, and look for someplace else to go for help. I think you have to ask whether people are willing to do the hard work of changing their landscapes, and that includes using less water in agriculture. People have invested in landscapes that are pretty water-intensive. Those changes take a while.”
Pincetl and her husband mulched their moderate-sized orchard in Ojai thoroughly to reduce water use, and she wonders if investing in these types of agricultural innovations — and different crops — might make more sense for Ojai than connecting to state water. But she knows that water sales fund water deliveries, and utilities have their hands tied by court rulings when it comes to changing rates and encouraging innovation.
Her comments about our thirsty plantings were echoed by Bill Patzert, a climatologist with decades of experience in Southern California. Patzert is critical of overplanted landscapes that look like rainforests in dry areas of Southern California such as Beverly Hills, and he notes that oil production requires huge amounts of water. Nonetheless he sympathizes with water districts in Southern California that want to connect to state water.
“If you look here in Southern California, the groundwater system supply has been in free-fall in the last five years of drought,” he said.
“Little water districts all over Southern California, like mine in Sierra Madre, are scrambling to connect to state water,” he added. “We really didn’t get much rain this winter, and partly because Casitas is in a rain shadow, you didn’t get that much rain either. It has to be a pretty big storm to get all that rain over the mountains and into the reservoir. Ojai doesn’t really get that much rain generally.”
THE “THREE SISTERS” PLAN
Richard Hajas, who grew up in Ventura, worked as an engineer for Casitas and went on to manage a water district in the Thousand Oaks area, agrees that Ojai and Ventura County have been expecting too much from Lake Casitas. Over the past year he worked with a quartet of water experts in Ojai (called the Water Advisory Group) on a plan to bolster the reservoir at Lake Casitas. It began with research into rainfall patterns and his discovery that Ojai’s water prosperity in the late 20th century looks to be unprecedented in its history.
“We went through an academic process of identifying the problem,” he said. “We went back through the data and found that the recent period from 1969 to 2000 had seven years of extraordinary rainfall. When we looked at the data from the county’s watershed protection district for the years 1900 to 1969 we could only find one year even similar to those kind of events. We may be betting that this really wet period is the norm. If you run the numbers this presents a much more dire picture of the future.”
Building on existing plans by the city of Ventura to bring water through the Calleguas Water District in Thousand Oaks to western Ventura by 2023, thus replacing the approximately 6,000 acre-feet a year that the city currently receives from the Casitas reservoir, Hajas proposes a plan that will allow Casitas to rebuild its water levels with runoff from the watershed. This would use available state water to replace Casitas’ supply to Ventura and, if necessary, some service areas as far north as Oak View (but not Casitas Springs or Ojai).
Ventura and Casitas, with financial support from the much larger Calleguas Water District, would in turn agree to reserve as much as 30,000 acre-feet to send flow back through Ventura and on to Calleguas in the event of an earthquake that could interrupt supplies to Thousand Oaks and southern Ventura County. Calleguas estimates that an earthquake that disrupted its sole pipeline to state water through the Santa Susanna Mountains could require six months to repair: 30,000 acre-feet could allow the utility to keep communities from Simi Valley to Thousand Oaks in water if necessary after that kind of emergency.
Hajas presented the plan to the Casitas board of directors on Feb. 28 to general acclaim and a unanimous vote of approval. “This is urgent!” declared director Jim Word, in the first comment heard from the board. Casitas formed an ad hoc committee of directors Mary Bergen and Word, and with General Manager Steve Wickstrum has begun to schedule meetings with the other “sisters” mentioned in the plan — the city of Ventura and Calleguas.
Yet Hajas and many others in the diverse and contentious community of water observers in Ojai — many of whom do not want to be quoted on the record — question the sincerity of Casitas management interest in making a regional water deal.
“They notoriously are very territorial and that’s been a real problem with Casitas in the past,” Hajas said. “In the dealings I’ve had with them they tend to bring up their boundaries and remind people of their alternatives, such as efforts they have had to find more water in the Ojai area. I think something will have to change, but whether it does or not we’ll just have to see.”
At an Ojai Chautauqua panel discussion on water in Ojai on April 14, City Councilman Bill Weirick won applause for an “all of the above” strategy to avert the prospect of desertification in the Ojai Valley. That strategy includes support for stormwater capture efforts such as being pioneered by Jones and the Sierra Watershed Progressive Group at The Thacher School in Ojai, but also for whatever it takes to implement the regional plan to bring state water to Ventura and the Ojai Valley. Yet Mary Bergen, a board member at Casitas who also is on the committee in discussions with the other “sisters” — the city of Ventura and Calleguas Water District — warned that if the plan cost too much, Ojai farmers might not support it. Casitas could not then afford it. She spoke of plans to drill a 6,000-foot-deep well below Lake Casitas, in the expectation of producing enough water to postpone a day of reckoning.
At Calleguas, Eric Bergh, a water planner with decades of experience at the agency, said that Casitas has had one meeting with his agency, but nothing further has been scheduled. He said that Calleguas is considering no less than 80 possibilities that could provide water to his agency in the event of a catastrophic earthquake.
He stresses that despite his agency’s large base of ratepayers, any such connection would have to “pencil out.” The Three Sisters plan is expected to cost upward of $100 million.
“It’s on our radar, but there are a lot of other alternatives we’ve been considering before this Three Sisters plan came along,” he said. “Most of our conversations along this line have been with the city of Ventura. We have not yet had any specific conversations about upsizing the intertie connections [that would be required to bring water south from Lake Casitas to Calleguas].”
Bert Rapp, the manager of the Ventura River Water District, confesses to feeling frustrated.
“Right now at Casitas it’s conservation conservation conservation, with no formal policy adopted by the board to implement any measures or bring in or develop an alternative supply of water should the lake go dry, and there’s a good chance of that in the next four or five years,” he said. “We could realistically be in a Cape Town situation, where people could have to go down to the corner to get their water from a truck.”