The Ventura County Board of Supervisors passed an emergency moratorium on new water wells by a super majority vote of 4-1 last week against strong opposition from farmers and agricultural groups. Supervisor Peter Foy, District 4, opposed.

The ordinance covers most of Ventura County and includes Ventura, Santa Clara and Cuyuma river basins as well as Calleguas Creek. The biggest impact will be on the agricultural areas surrounding Piru, Fillmore and the Ojai Valley, but the moratorium won’t affect wells dug within city limits, nor will it affect Fox Canyon’s Groundwater Management Plan, which includes most of the Oxnard Plain, an area already under a temporary new well moratorium since April.

Supervisor Steve Bennett, District 1, who oversees Ventura, the Ojai Valley and some of Oxnard, proposed the moratorium. He says that the measure is needed to prevent a flurry of new applications prior to the onset of the Sustainable Groundwater Management act featuring regulations that require a sustainability plan to be maintained for the basins being used for water procurement.

“The moratorium is an attempt to tie in to the fact that the state has passed these regulations that will require more groundwater regulation in these important basins,” said Bennett. Bennett says that currently, due in part to the severe drought effecting most of the state, groundwater levels are “very stressed” and the basins have been overused.

The Groundwater Management Act requires agencies to be formed that will monitor groundwater usage on a basin by basin case. After the agencies are formed, basin sustainability reports are to be submitted; once they are submitted, the moratorium will be lifted for that particular area, as is written into the ordinance itself.

The first agency, however, isn’t expected to be formed for several years and the Management Act gives these agencies until the year 2020 to develop a sustainability report. In the meantime, only new well plans submitted prior to Oct. 22 can move forward, though new rules do allow for well modifications, replacements and for individual exceptions if the resident has no access to municipal water.

Ventura County Farm Bureau CEO John Krist says that the moratorium is not necessary, as it excludes basins that are most affected by the drought, and instead will only do harm to rural farmers.

“A lot of the justification language talks about serious overdraft and seawater intrusion, but this particular moratorium basically exempts the basins where that’s occurring,” said Krist. “From a practical standpoint, the only people it affects are rural home owners and farmers in a small subset of the county, essentially the eastern Santa Clara River valley.”
Krist says that it isn’t cheap to dig a new well at around $200,000 per well dug and that farmers don’t “dig wells just for the heck of it.” Furthermore, Krist says that this ordinance damages relations between the county and the farmers. Bennett says that after making the announcement that the moratorium would move to a vote, his office received 37 new applications — the same number usually received over a nine month period.

Krist says that announcing the moratorium with no input from farmers has damaged relations.

“You need to have a level of trust and collaboration and this process of developing a moratorium shows on the county’s part distrust of the intentions of farmers because it was done without their knowledge and their involvement,” said Krist. “It’s going to be hard to do this kind of stuff anyway, and it just got harder.”

Agriculture accounts for roughly 80 percent of “total demand” of groundwater in the county.

As for the new state regulations, Bennett says that they’re long overdue.

“They’re way overdue to make sure we don’t over use this resource, like we’ve overused almost every other resource where it was just being tapped for private gain,” said Bennett, specifically noting fisheries. Bennett says that he’s spoken with many farmers who privately support the moratorium.

“The existing people who have wells are the ones that are actually protected by this,” said Bennett. “I think you can view this as it’s very supportive of current agriculture.”