Mary Bergen, a retired marine biologist, is running for re-election to the Board of the Casitas Municipal Water District, which manages Lake Casitas, providing water to over 60,000 residents in West County, against Angelo Spandrio, an engineer and first-time candidate for the board. They disagree on some issues, but agree that climate change and drought has made the job they seek tougher.

“I think climate change is probably a factor,” Spandrio said. “If you look at our history, we have never had under 10-12 inches of rain in a year for six years straight before this drought [from 2011 to 2016]. We had a better-than-average year in 2017, but this year we were again back in the 10-12 inches range. This could be the first year of another five-year drought. I would really like to see Casitas plan on more of a worst-case situation than a best-case situation.”

Bergen said she understands why Ojai residents are worried.

“It’s the drought,” she said. “People are genuinely scared and rightfully so. What’s going through my mind is how we approach the question. Do we approach it rationally, which is really hard to do in a scary situation? Or do you run to fear? I say we have to do everything we can to try and be rational and take the steps we need to take, and not get into the blame game and the fear-mongering.”

Four years ago Bergen ran unopposed for re-election to the Casitas board. This year, her opponent Spandrio has blanketed the Ojai Valley with his campaign signs, backed by over $25,000 in donations, according to election filings with the county clerk. Donors include dozens of Ojai residents giving mostly small contributions, but a few large donations, including $4,000 from the California Association of Realtors office in Los Angeles.

Bergen is largely self-funding her campaign, which is being outspent by a nearly 6-to-1 margin. Spandrio sees his backing as evidence of a groundswell of support.

“When I agreed to be a candidate, there was a huge outpouring of dollars to support my campaign. I think it’s an indication that people are not happy with the way Casitas is being run,” he said.

Unlike most of Southern California, which relies heavily on imported water from Northern California, the Ojai Valley is entirely dependent on local rainfall and groundwater. Bergen, who for many years managed a large avocado orchard in Ojai, believes that the growers are well aware of the drought but wary of the expense of new sources of water.

“There is no magic wand out there,” Bergen said. “If there were some magic, cheap, affordable solution, we would have done it. This is not to say anything bad about Angelo; it’s just that he’s beginning to learn that it’s not easy.”

Bergen said that Casitas has been talking since 2016 with the city of Ventura and two east county water districts to bring an allocation of water to Ventura from Northern California via the State Water Project. Called the State Water Interconnection, this “in lieu” water is intended to go to the western side of the city and allow Casitas — which currently supplies the western side of the city of Ventura with water — to keep more of its rainfall in the lake.

“One of the frustrations we have on the board is that people would say, ‘What are you doing about the drought?’ And we would tell them, and they wouldn’t hear,” Bergen said.

Spandrio argues that the State Water Interconnection, which is slated to bring water to the west side of Ventura by 2023, is not enough.

“There is no provision for bringing water to the Ojai Valley,” he said. “Casitas would like for you to think that the intertie is comparable to the Three Sisters Plan that we have proposed, but the intertie does not include a pipeline from the Ventura system to the Casitas system, and it doesn’t include the second major component, which is a negotiation between Casitas, Calleguas and Ventura to figure out how to combine the allocations so we can somehow get together and figure out where we may potentially have excess water.”

The Three Sisters Plan is a coordinated effort with Casitas and Calleguas water districts and the city of Ventura to augment water supplies through the state water connection, using Casitas as an emergency back up, and help share in the costs. Roughly three quarters of Ventura County residents, from Oxnard to Simi Valley, use water purchased by their retail purveyors from Calleguas’ distribution system, according to the district’s website.

Although Bergen has been part of the negotiations with Calleguas, she said her first priority at present with Casitas is managing the drought.

“One of the things we’re working on now is a definition of what a Stage Four [drought] declaration means exactly,” she said. [Stage Four, which will further limit irrigation and outdoor watering, is expected to be declared soon.] “We want to protect both the agricultural community and the business community, as well as the residents.”