Carrying capacity is defined as the number of people, other living organisms or crops that a region can support without environmental degradation.

The groundwater aquifers in Ventura County have been over-pumped for decades. Cities and the county continue to grant building permits, and the population continues to grow. Our storm-water management infrastructure is designed to move water out and away as fast as possible, rather than catch and collect it so it can percolate down to replenish groundwater basins. Farmers find themselves searching for economically viable crops — some options needing more water — in order to continue to earn a living. And industries continue to expand water use to meet market demand, for example the high demand for bottled water and products dependent on the extraction of oil and gas, which can be water-intensive.

Has Ventura County reached its carrying capacity?


The Surfrider Ocean Friendly Garden programs are taking shape in Oxnard, Casitas Municipal Water District, Camrosa Water District and Thousand Oaks. Above is an example of the transformation.

The concept of peak water
“We are all drinking recycled dinosaur pee … this is the new normal. It never rains in the right place, in the right amount,” said Richard Katz, owner of Richard Katz Consulting and former California State assemblyman. Katz spoke in April during the Annual Water Symposium of the Association of Water Agencies of Ventura County. He pointed out that the water system in California has mostly relied on snowfall, not really rainfall. When we aren’t getting the snow, to build the snow pack, the water is simply not going to flow down in the same way to replenish the reservoirs and canals, the places dams were built to contain water. So even if rain comes, we need the cold weather and the snow. He points out, moving dams is simply not practical, so how do we capture that rain before it runs out to the ocean.

“We are not going to be able to get away with solving it the way we have in the past. It is not about the same questions, or the same answers.” He said it is no longer about thinking in wet and dry periods but “We have to think bigger than we have. A lack of water means your lawn turns brown. That is a First World problem. It’s not a big deal.” He pointed to areas in the Central Valley where hundreds of thousands of acres have been fallowed, and the effect this has had on workers and farmers. “Mother Nature did not intend for 40 million people to live here. When are front lawns going to become a waste and unreasonable use?”

The Surfrider Foundation has created a program called Know Your H20. It is rooted in educating the public about the water cycle, basically how water gets to your tap and where it goes when it flows down the drain.

“I believe it is every citizen’s responsibility to understand where their water comes from, and where it goes when it leaves their property,” said Paul Jenkin, environmental coordinator with the Ventura County chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “We can’t trust government to do the right thing, but an educated populace can at least help keep them honest — in the end it’s all of our survival at stake. You can’t live without water.”

The outreach program points out the combined effect of increasing population, changes in rainfall and climate and the wasteful habits of water users, showing that the current system creates a situation where the water supply has hit its limit.

The current infrastructure is set up and designed to move any rainwater we get, out and away as fast as possible, carrying pollutants along with it. It is quickly diverted down our streets and roofs, through downspouts to gutters, down drains, through pipes, through the storm water treatment facility where it is likely to be diluted with more water to prepare it for discharge into a local river and ultimately the ocean. This system changes the natural flow of creeks and rivers, reducing the water supply of wetlands and carrying pollutants to the ocean. Plans are put in place for expensive and high-energy water treatment and desalination plants.

By our own design we are reducing our water supply by not allowing the limited rainwater to slow down and soak in. Surfrider calls this “The Cycle of Insanity.”

But, Jenkins says, we can fix it.

An approach that looks beyond only the immediate supply, but considers the big picture is what Surfrider supports. Jenkins refers to is as an “integrated water management plan — this would mean taking a watershed approach to all water sources, many of which are currently underutilized or simply thrown away.” Part of this plan involves creating a water budget, and living within it.

But when we look at the projected growth rate for Ventura, indeed for many cities, there is a slow but steady increase.

And in some areas, by moving forward with plans for desalters — like Moorpark, Camrosa Water District (plans to pump groundwater from a well on California State Channel Islands to treat) — communities are not being encouraged to truly reduce their dependence on overusing water in an inefficient water system. The Camrosa Round Mountain Desalter is designed to “partially meet the demand associated with growth of the CSUCI campus from approximately 2,500 to 15,000 full-time-equivalent students over the next10 years,” according to the project description.

“We recognize that waste equals pollution, which directly affects the health of our coast and those of us who enjoy ocean recreations,” said Dan Glaser, chairman of the Ventura County Chapter of Surfrider Foundation in a letter dated May 18 to the Ventura City Council. “We believe a truly integrated water management plan is desperately needed so that the City of Ventura can become sustainable within the limits of our local water supply.” Glaser goes on to point out that the current drought has “exposed the vulnerability of the City of Ventura to uncontrolled variations in water supply,” and that Ventura has reached “peak water.” Glaser is critical of the 2015 Comprehensive Water Resources Report and says it “reveals some glaring errors and omissions that not only represent undisclosed limits to our water supply, but also missed opportunities in attaining sustainable water management.” He recommends the city of Ventura “reject” that report and “impose a building moratorium during the current severe drought.”

According to Glaser, errors in that report include incorrect assumptions about water transfers from Casitas Municipal Water District to East Ventura, transfers likely to stop as the drought continues, and inaccurate calculations of mandated reductions. And pointing to the probability that ongoing and increasing urban and agricultural uses of water sources in the “east side groundwater supply” are likely to dwindle.

“It appears that Ventura is overestimating the current and future water supply in order to justify continued urban growth,” said Glaser in the letter.

How your yard can help protect the ocean
He asks the city of Ventura to consider both small- and large-scale adjustments to how water is managed. By starting with individual residential landscaping and then expanding to how storm water is managed, the city can create a truly integrated approach to managing water.

“The inadequacies of the existing storm drain infrastructure were highlighted by [a recent] small rain event (May), which resulted in flooding at Sanjon Road near the beach,” said Glaser.

By encouraging residents to rethink and redesign the landscapes at their homes, communities can begin to redirect water by slowing and capturing it, and allowing it to soak into the ground.

Most are familiar with the concepts of reduce, reuse and recycle when it comes to waste management. Surfrider’s plan is based on applying those concepts to water management.

For example, the Surfrider Ocean Friendly Garden program is a relatively easy and small-scale way to get individuals involved. In a lot of homes, over half of the water is used to maintain landscaping. A garden designed with the ocean in mind not only conserves water, but reduces runoff, which can carry pollution. Water coming off roofs, driveways and sidewalks can be collected in the landscape. This plan involves using open swales, small hills and channels in the home landscape to move water away from the base of the home, but then catching it into small pools and channels, allowing the water to collect and soak back into the ground. Native, drought-tolerant plants required little water and attract beneficial insects like bees and butterflies. Excess water still would flow into the storm water system, but at a slower pace and lower volume, thus reducing the strain on the storm-water system during strong rain events. Curb cuts along roadways allow water to slow down and get back to the soil.

Graywater systems — for reusing water inside the home — can be integrated into the home landscaping plan as well, making it easy for bath and laundry water to get diverted from the drain to the soil. This helps reduce water demand but also lowers the amount of water sent into the water treatment plants, and ultimately the amount of water discharged.

Ocean-friendly garden programs are taking shape in Oxnard, Casitas Municipal Water District, Camrosa Water District and Thousand Oaks, which have expressed an interest in  working with Surfrider on various projects.

Exporting water, say what?
Another question involves the actual exportation of local water for profit. What, you say? We are not exporting water overseas. But wait, local growers do export tons of citrus, avocados, vegetables and plants.

“The majority of people benefiting from California agriculture don’t live in California,” said Katz. “We need to start thinking differently, thinking bigger. If we managed to get double (the yield) from an acre-foot of water, that would affect the pricing. It would affect the choices about what types of crops we grow. Do we really need 17 types of berries?” He pointed to the alfalfa hay grown in California.

Some areas of the state have actually banned new vineyards due to the drought.

According to the 2013 Ventura County Agriculture Commissioner’s Report (the most recent version available) Ventura County growers made approximately 10,000 shipments of agricultural commodities to 81 different countries in that year. The top 10 countries exported to were Japan, Canada, Korea, Mexico, China, Chile, Taiwan, Netherlands, Australia and Thailand. Other nations receiving the fruits of Ventura County water include Egypt, Kuwait, Honduras, Lebanon, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Russian Federation.

Lemons were the most exported crop from the county with 2,635 shipments, followed closely by fruit and vegetable seed, then blueberries and strawberries.

At the April Association of Water Agencies (AWA) Symposium, Janet Lombardo with the California Women for Agriculture said that the profit margins for small farmers will be greatly affected, and those small farms will be the first to go away. And with the low profit margins on vegetables, the staples, they will be the first to go as costs go up for farmers related to water costs. “Half of the vegetables in the United States are grown in California. If it is not grown here, it will be brought in from other countries,” said Lombardo.

“Nonfarmers typically don’t understand the economic constraints and market forces that determine which crops can be grown profitably in Ventura County,” said John Krist, chief executive officer with the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. “Sure, there are many crops that use less water than berries, for example. But unless you can make money growing that less-thirsty crop here, it’s not possible to make that substitution. Our extremely high land, energy, labor and regulatory compliance costs really narrow the crop choices available to local growers. And the fact is that higher-value crops tend to be more water-intensive.”

When asked about whether the county’s farmers are doing enough to conserve water, Krist said, “Most of our crops are grown using very efficient irrigation techniques and sophisticated technology. Is there room for improvement? In some cases, yes.” He said some growers still have to rely on old types of systems, which are less efficient. “But those projects would cost millions of dollars and it’s very difficult to make that investment pencil out. The bottom line is that water costs money, and farmers are not in the business of wasting money. There’s been a great deal of research and innovation, funded by local growers, aimed at squeezing as much production as possible out of every drop.”

In terms of homeowners being asked to reduce water in many ways everyday compared to what feels like fewer reductions in agriculture, Krist says, “The general public often doesn’t seem to understand that there’s a fundamental difference between agricultural water use and residential water use.” He explained that homeowners have more flexibility in their ability to reduce outdoor water use, “which typically accounts for at least half of a typical household’s water consumption.” And they can do this “without suffering any economic hardship. But a farmer can’t just cut back water to an orchard or vegetable field without killing it, and that means significant economic loss.”

In Ventura County the soil can contain a high amount of salt. Krist says the salt accumulates from irrigation. “Whether the source is groundwater or even imported water, it contains small quantities of salts that remain in the soil after the water evaporates or is transpired by the plants.” He said that over time those salts accumulate and can cause damage to plants and reduction in yields. “The best way to cure this is rainfall, it’s very soft water that flushes the salts away from the root zone naturally. But when there’s no meaningful rainfall for four years, the problem can get pretty bad.” And in those cases farmers must flush the fields with waste, to rinse out the salt.

Krist says that most of what is produced in the county is shipped out. “We produce around 700 million pounds of strawberries a year, for example. That’s more than 800 pounds for every man, woman and child living in Ventura County. But the fact that most production leaves the county is, by itself, a meaningless piece of information,” said Krist. “Some places are really great places to grow food; others are not. Of course it makes sense to grow food where the natural advantages make it most suitable to do so.”

“If every county in the U.S. had to be responsible for feeding itself and no one else, there would be a lot of very hungry Americans,” said Krist.

To watch the Surfrider Know Your H20 video visit: