The people of Ventura County might have to change the way they think about water — or live in a world much different than today’s.

The changes would start gradually. First we would see our water bills go up, with fines added over a certain limit. We have something like that now. Then residents would be encouraged to report any water abuse they see. Fines and citations would be issued, and attendance at water education schools will be required. Soon neighbor would be turned against neighbor and community against community. Restraining orders would be granted and eventually a water police would be formed to patrol the streets.  Finally, a special Water Commission would determine how much water your household or business needs. When that limit was reached, water restrictors on pipes would simply shut the water off. Lawns would become thing of the past; pools would be empty and plants dead. Voluntary migrations would follow. (This scenario was created by the San Diego County Water Authority for drought conditions in East San Diego in 2008.)

 “Right now we are living in what I call a cycle of insanity,” said Paul Jenkin, environmental director of the Ventura Surfrider Foundation. “I was looking at a dry Ventura Riverbed at Foster Park today. The city has pumped out that water to use.  At the same time, I went down to McGrath State Beach and it’s closed because it’s flooding. It’s the same water. It is being used once and pumped into the sewer system, treated, then emptied out into the ocean. Those two issues are directly connected although a lot of people don’t see that connection.”

Each city in Ventura County has its own water system. Thousand Oaks gets 100 percent of its water from the state pipeline. Oxnard, Camarillo and Moorpark get about half their water from the state and half from local groundwater. Ventura, Ojai, Fillmore and Santa Paula get all their water from the ground.

“Our area is very unique in all of Southern California because everywhere else, from Oxnard to the Mexican border, is dependent upon imported water.” Jenkin said.

The city of Ventura has a newly released Comprehensive Water Resource Report. It warns residents that by 2017, water resources could be over-tapped. The city’s average annual water demand for 2005 to 2009 was 19,300 acre-feet/year, which is uncomfortably close to our current available water supply (19,600 AFY).

“I see an opportunity in Ventura to be somewhat sustainable and live within our means as long as we don’t outgrow our water supply. The water needs to be put back into the landscape. You import water from hundreds of miles away, use it once, then put it into a treatment plant and pump it back into the ocean. The real insanity comes when you want to pump that water back out of the ocean and take the salt out of it, then do it all over again,” Jenkin said.

But Jenkin is starting to become optimistic. “For the first time in recent years the Ventura Water Department is shining a light on the fact that we’re kind of at our limit as far as our water supply. Unless we find new water we don’t have water to fuel a lot of the growth that the city of Ventura is planning.” To help sort out the enormously complicated water situation, Jenkin has joined the Water Coalition of Ventura County, a group that hopes to consolidate all county water issues under one roof.

Mike Solomon is not so optimistic. He is the general manager of the United Water Conservation District that controls water from Lake Piru. It has a capacity of 100,000 acre-feet. Because of low rainfall its level is down to 20,000 acre-feet.

“We are in the third year of a drought. In our area the ground water levels dropped below sea level last month. That means sea water is slowly pouring into the aquifers and we are not pushing it out. Until we get some huge rains, more and more of the groundwater is going to be contaminated.” said Solomon.

Although he has been a growth advocate in the past, Solomon said the situation has changed.

“We’re taking 30,000 acre-feet more water out of the ground than we’re putting in and that’s not sustainable. This year we’re looking at taking about 90,000 acre-feet more water than we put back in. Any new development is now required to show where they will get enough water. That’s very hard to do. We don’t have any more to allocate really. It would be very difficult for me to say let’s keep growing when I am saying to you, we are already in overdraft,” Solomon said.

At a recent meeting of Farm Bureau of Ventura County he delivered the grim news. The farmers and strawberry growers on the Oxnard Plain and Pleasant Valley Road will only receive half of the water they need during the peak October growing season this year. All Solomon could offer them was advice on conservation.

But there are many people in Ventura County who say that is the ultimate solution. Jenkins’ Surfrider Foundation along with a score of city, county and grass-roots groups, has been spreading that message for a decade, with modest results. But according to Jenkin, now the tide has changed and people are listening.

“In the past, the city of Ventura had decided to use desalination as the best way to get more water in the future. But right now the city is seriously looking at ways to implement a larger-scale recycling of their used water,” Jenkin said.

What about just tying into the state water system? This month the Bay Delta Conservation Plan that would tunnel under the Sacrament Delta got good news. The state Natural Resources Agency gave its approval. It’s not the final OK, but a big boost. It will cost $25 billion, $17 billion of that will be passed on to consumers over the next 50 years.  Twin tunnels buried up to 150 feet beneath the delta’s peat soil would carry the water south, with the hope that water supplies can be delivered even if climate change alters the delta. It will be the second largest public works project in California history. Agency Secretary John Laird came from Sacramento to the Reagan Library to urge Ventura County to accept the tax burden.  His agency supports the project as the best solution to solving our water problem. Jenkin said that is not a solution for Ventura.

“We are learning that large capital improvement projects and large infrastructure projects are not solutions. Even the cost of connecting to the state water project and the potential unreliability of it, would make it less attractive than even the horrendous cost of ocean desalination.”

Those desalination costs are significant. According to Solomon it would take 15 to 20 years to even start the construction of a plant here. Ventura County bulk water rates average $800 per acre-foot. San Diego has started building a plant and will have to charge $ 2,200 per acre-foot.

In many people’s minds, that leaves conservation. Ventura city’s water conservation coordinator, Jill Sarick, has joined forces with the Surfrider Foundation to form outreach groups that see 7,000 students a year.

“We teach people to take water that would normally run off down the street. In a lot of new developments you see gutters that run into pipes directly under the landscape and into the street and into the storm drain. We are teaching people how to cut the downspout and redirect the water into rain or sponge gardens and yards that can store it in the soil. These are native landscapes that use the water differently than a lawn.”

Thanks to the Rainwater Capture Act of 2011 people can collect their own reserve supply. “Rain barrels are people’s first experience with conserving water. We get on average 14 to 15 inches a year. We’ve only had five or six inches in the last few years. You can store up to 360 gallons on your property without a city permit. One inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof gives you 620 gallons,” Sarick said.

“We give 60-gallon rain barrels at half-price to Ventura city residents at Smith Pipe and Supply,” Sarick said. “They hook up together.”

Sarick promotes a program called Ocean Friendly Gardens, one she hopes will change the face of the city.

“As we moved west they still built for flood control and they didn’t really have a concept of what they were doing to the watershed. The watershed science has developed significantly in the last decade. We’ve put all this hardscape and concrete and rooftops that drain everything away, and it’s obsolete.” Sarick said.


Lisa Burton, owner Ventura-based Nature by Design,
is known as the lawn killer by replacing lawns with
natural drought-tolerant gardens, such as this one in Ventura.

Lisa Burton calls herself the lawn killer. She owns Nature by Design, a Ventura company that takes out traditional landscapes and installs very unique ones in their place.

“One of my missions in life is to get rid of lawns, in favor of gardens,” Burton said. “There are a lot of reasons; one is having plants with drought tolerance. A lawn takes a lot of water, a lot of maintenance, fertilizer. It takes, takes, takes and gives nothing back.”

Burton holds to the concept that natural gardens bring everything back in line with nature instead of fighting it.

“When you put in a garden, whether it’s native plants or drought-tolerant plants, it gives to the environment by providing habitat for birds, butterflies, bees and insects you don’t even see. It creates an ecosystem that benefits our environment. We got very much out of balance with these lawns that are pieces of green that don’t contribute much, and now we’re seeing a trend returning back to creating a healthy environment,” Burton said.

“As I remove one lawn at a time and replace it with a garden, the culminating effect to the neighborhood can be really substantial. You create a whole neighborhood with an ecosystem, and that ecosystem has a thriving population of live creatures.”

Burton said the idea is starting to catch on as more people find lawn a luxury from a different era. Most golf courses and parks are irrigated with sophisticated reclaimed water systems, but up to 70 percent of household water is used by landscapes. Sprinklers have been under scrutiny lately and are now considered one of the worst offenders.

“Lawns start to look really boring and sort of silly; so does the water bill. This is a movement that is going on across the country, but there are three reasons to keep a lawn — kids, dogs and recreation. Of course that can be in the backyard, not the front,” Burton said.

The Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, completed a municipal review in 2012. It broke down the amount of water each city used per household. Thousand Oaks residents use 222 gallons per person a day, Camarillo, 212 gallons; Ventura, 168 gallons; Santa Paula, 155 gallons; and Oxnard, 132 gallons. United Water District hydrogeologist Dan Detner said the discrepancy in those figures represents landscaping use.

Diane Underhill, president of Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation, is a regular contributor to Ventura City Council meetings. She focuses her efforts on stopping the demands of city-approved building.

“We need to stop approving future development projects. Our available water supply has been committed. In drought times, our water supply has been over-committed. We have known for a long time that our city was approaching the crossover point where our water demand will outstrip our local water supply.”

Underhill has criticized the way the city is evaluating the problem. She said the Residential Growth Management Plan was the only program that tried to tie limited water resources to the city’s growth. She said that unfortunately, in 2005 it was replaced with the Housing Approval Program. “The City is signing checks that can’t be cashed, all by giving out new development permits,” Underhill said.

As far as the county is concerned, Ventura County Supervisor Linda Parks explains that it is not easy to get a new waterline approval.

“It’s very difficult to get new projects that are not already in a water district approved. There are real limitations on taking areas that are not already being served and bring new imported water in. Wheeler Canyon along the 126 or Hidden Valley are areas that are very difficult to get water to. They don’t have that much water to begin with, and the county laws prohibit putting in water lines. … We don’t see them as urban uses.” Parks said.

Parks is also concerned about the cascading cost of water throughout the county.

“You’re paying for Metropolitan Water and their service costs, and Calleguas and their costs, then the next water agency that provides it to your home. There are several agencies that handle that water. As a result, the rate payers can get dinged a lot. The rates vary incredibly throughout Ventura County; some people pay five times as much as others. It all revolves around a complex system,” said Parks.

Many Ojai residents pay the highest water rates in the county and put forward Measure V, which passed. The measure will force the sale of their current provider Golden State Water Co. to Casitas Municipal Water District. The move will give them more control over rates.

Coincidentally, the United Water Conservation District was just delivered a blow to its rates. The Santa Barbara Superior Court ruled in April that the United Water Conservation District has been unconstitutionally overcharging the city of Ventura for water. United was recently ordered to refund to the city the principal amount of $962,866 plus 7 percent interest. The charges stemmed from a practice of charging lower rates for agriculture users. United said it was within its legal rights to charge more; the court disagreed.

Water conservation advocates and pipeline supporters may differ on solutions, but they do agree that some change is needed.  Supervisor Parks said, that as a county official, she must allow all doors must remain open, or at least considered, until the problem is solved.