Pictured: Looking toward the ocean over the lower Ventura River Watershed, the Petrochem site is on the right side of the photo. Photo by Jimmy Young for CFROG

by Kimberly Rivers

krivers@timespublications.com

The Ventura River Watershed is a vast area stretching from the Ventura River mouth to the Upper Ojai Valley and back to the edges of the Sespe, with an arm reaching into Santa Barbara County. It encompasses all the land that gathers water from local mountain peaks, channeling it down into barrancas and drainages, combining into creek beds and eventually all coming together into the Ventura River to stream out to the Pacific Ocean. It includes not just water visible at the surface, but also the deep groundwater basins that fill water wells for thousands of property owners in the area.

Our watershed supports habitat for millions of living organisms — plants, animals, insects, fungi and microbes. From hillside chaparral to oak woodland groves to the riparian areas, the Ventura River Watershed is a vast ecosystem connected by the water that flows through it.

Two stories are currently unfolding in the Ventura River Watershed, one regarding a polluted property that is changing hands, the other involving a legal case that could have ramifications for all water users and water rights for decades.  

What is next for Petrochem site?

Those who drive the highway 33 corridor regularly may have noticed something different. The spheres are gone. Two large, round tanks used by Shell Oil Company in the 1950s to store ammonia, that have been empty and mothballed for years and were slated for demolition for decades, are no more. They were finally dismantled mere days after escrow closed on the sale of the property at 4777 Crooked Palm Road in Ventura.

The Petrochem spheres, next to the Ventura River, partially dismantled. Photo by Jimmy Young for CFROG.

Dwight Stenseth, president of Indianapolis-based Real Estate Recovery Capital (RER), confirmed that Palm Road LLC, the company listed on the deed, is owned by RER. He described RER as a “brownfield redeveloper . . . we buy environmentally contaminated [sites]. We go in, remove the contamination and work with the state to get the signoffs for a clean property. In most cases we sell to someone who wants to develop it down the road.”

Petrochem, the owner up until Dec. 26, 2019, applied to the Ventura County Planning Department to modify the permit for the property and make it a vehicle storage yard. Stenseth said RER is “trying to get our arms around everything,” and that they “haven’t decided yet” whether or not to proceed with the proposed project. He said that frequently, RER steps “into a project with a negative history and background. We like to think we can do some good things.”

Vehicle storage plan in question

In Sept. 2019, the Ventura County Planning Director approved Petrochem’s plans to turn the property into a vehicle storage yard for new cars, naming the Port of Hueneme as the main source. But the port stated that the car companies it works with were not interested in that site because it was too far from the port.

A group of local organizations filed an appeal of that decision, citing numerous problems with the plan. The appellants call themselves the Petrochem Appeal Alliance and include: Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG), Environmental Coalition, Food and Water Action, Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation, Friends of the Ventura River, Ventura Land Trust, Wishtoyo Chumash Foundation, California Trout, Inc., Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter, Westside Community Council, Showing Up for Racial Justice, Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura and Central Coast Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE).

The appeal argues that the project shouldn’t be approved because of air quality impacts and a failure of Petrochem to include a true and complete project description, something the alliance says local zoning ordinances require.

“Zoning clearance application instructions require that a full, true and correct account of the proposed project must be provided,” said Marie Lakin, communications director with CFROG, responding by email to the VCReporter. Initially the project named the Port of Hueneme as one of the entities that would use the site to store new vehicles. “The applicant pulled the port out of the picture the very day of the [planning director] hearing because [the port] objected to being named in the project on the grounds that they had surveyed all their auto clients and not one wanted to park cars on this remote and controversial site. They are now merely speculating on what the use could be and thus cannot adequately project any data on this project’s environmental impacts.”

The project application for vehicle storage is still active and pending, even though RER is now the owner of the site. Dave Ward, director of the Ventura County Planning Department, said “The new owners must sign for application and acknowledge the conditions of approval before we move forward; or they could decide to amend the permit or withdraw if the new owners seek something different. We are awaiting their direction.”

As for immediate plans regarding the pending project with the county, RER’s Stenseth said, “I don’t have a clear answer [about] plans for the property.” He said RER would want to see “some type of redevelopment that is valuable for everyone in the chain, the county, us, the whole thing.”  

Watershed property owners included in legal action

Last week 10,500 property owners across the Ventura River Watershed began receiving a thick envelope via certified mail from the city of Ventura. A majority of those who received it are in the Ojai Valley.

The document inside, dated Jan. 6, 2020, is titled “Notice of commencement of groundwater basin adjudication.” The next page states, “This notice is important. Any rights you claim to pump or store groundwater from the basins identified in this notice may be affected by a lawsuit initiated by the third amended cross complaint summarized below.” That cross complaint is from the city of Ventura, and includes language that the city would seek attorneys’ fees from the property owners.

The notice states, “Failing to participate in this lawsuit could have a significant adverse effect on any right to pump or store groundwater that you may have.” The document goes on to state that a judgment in the case could prevent “any person now or in the future, who owns your land from ever pumping, extracting or storing groundwater from, under or on your land.” The notice includes information about a June 1, 2020, case management conference that some folks thought they were being summoned to.

Across social media — Facebook and Next Door primarily — residents began asking if they were being sued, why they were being summoned and what to do.

“Technically [it is] not a summons, just a notice of adjudication,” said Dakotah Benjamin, an attorney with Best, Best and Krieger, representing the city. He said those who received the notice are “not being sued,” and “are not parties to adjudication . . . to be a party they would need to file an answer.”

He said no one has to respond and the “vast majority” of people would not be impacted, but then said, the “final outcome could impact someone’s water rights,” and that folks should respond if they “want to assure they have water rights in the future.” Benjamin added, “It is the city’s goal to work collaboratively with all parties to reach a negotiated settlement”

“I think lawsuits are the last step that anyone should take to solve or reconcile differences,” said Randy Haney, Ojai city councilmember, during public comment at the Jan. 13 Ventura City Council meeting. He said legal action is not the way to create a “collaborative” solution. “Did you ask [your attorney] how you could mitigate [Santa Barbara] Channelkeeper concerns, other than suing the citizens of Ojai, or the city of Ojai, or any other entity? It’s a question you all need to own.”

History of water use concerns

In 2014, the environmental organization Santa Barbara Channelkeeper (SBCK) sued the California State Water Board and the city of Ventura “because [the city] takes by far, more water than any other individual user and has the pumping capacity at Foster Park to pump the river dry, even if everyone else left water behind,” said Ben Pitterle, science and policy director with SBCK. According to the SBCK website, the legal action’s aim is to ensure there is adequate water in the river for wildlife such as the endangered steelhead trout, and to preserve “finite water supplies for all users.”

Ventura and SBCK entered into an interim settlement in Sept. 2019, in which the city agreed to participate in a pilot program to maintain adequate flow and reduce the city’s impacts on wildlife.

Then, the Ventura City Council approved a plan from their attorneys to build a sustainable water plan in the watershed through a process called adjudication.

Benjamin said, “In this context ‘adjudication’ means a legal action to comprehensively determine all water rights within the Ventura River Watershed, including the waters of the Ventura River and the groundwater basins located within the watershed.” The process will also, if the city has its way, “impose a court-ordered ‘physical solution’ that protects and conserves this limited water supply.”

Pitterle said SBCK “initially fought against the cross-complaints in court because we felt it would delay actions needed on the city’s [water] well field, but we were overturned in the appellate court.” He said this “complicates our pursuit of securing protections against the city’s overpumping at Foster Park,” adding that, “In the long term, integrated management of the watershed’s limited water supply could ultimately be a good thing for the river, as long as the river’s needs are part of the equation.”

Management plans under consideration

Some point to the California Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) that is already identifying those groundwater basins that are overused, and requiring local agencies to come up with a sustainability plan by 2022 or risk the state taking over.

Two of the four basins currently at issue — the Upper Ventura River and Ojai Valley (lower valley) — in the watershed fall under the directives of the SGMA. But Ventura’s plan includes all four of the basins — the former as well as Lower Ventura River and Upper Ojai basins.

“The [SGMA] only requires that, starting in January of 2022, the designated Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) prepare Groundwater Sustainability Plans (GSPs) for two of the four basins covered by this action,” explained Benjamin, noting that the city’s “action is a more comprehensive, system-wide attempt to address all of the fishery issues facing the watershed, including all four basins, the river and its tributaries now. The physical solution the city is pursuing will be consistent with and will help implement the GSPs once they are developed.”

Matt LaVere (left), mayor of the city of Ventura and Randy Haney, Ojai City councilmember, discuss the legal action at the Jan. 12 meeting of the Democratic Club of Ventura at Bell Arts Factory in Ventura. Photo by Kimberly Rivers.

On Sunday, Jan. 12, at the meeting of the Democratic Club of Ventura, Matt LaVere, mayor of Ventura, said he was told by attorneys that this adjudication process involving all watershed property owners was the only way to get all water users to the table. “I rely a lot on what our attorneys tell us . . . if there is another [way] I would jump at it.”

Haney said LaVere “needs more education and a better grasp of the facts on these water issues,” and that Ojai will be seeking a public discussion with its attorney about next steps.

Response from Ojai

“I wanted to meet you all face to face to get a look at the people who decided to sue every property owner in the Ojai Valley, en masse,” said Laura Rearwin Ward, publisher of the Ojai Valley News, also speaking at the Jan. 13 meeting. She said this action would divide the two communities and could bankrupt many, noting LaVere had told her he “hadn’t read the lawsuit.” Directing a statement to LaVere, she said, “If you agree with going forward with this lawsuit, you need to withdraw your bid for county supervisor immediately. You cannot represent the people of the Ojai Valley when you are suing us.”

“I wanted to clarify, I hadn’t read the part of the complaint . . . that called for [the city]…seeking our legal fees, the city’s legal fees,” responded LaVere. “I missed that part in the complaint.”

“I’m profoundly disappointed” with what Ventura has done, said Ojai city councilmember William Weirick, calling the action to sue the “entire Ojai Valley uninformed.” But he said he was “encouraged” by LaVere’s statement about wanting to work together to find a solution. “We’ll see what happens.”

Those who have received notices can contact: Dakotah Benjamin, Best, Best & Krieger, 925-977-3330.

The notice and city filings are online at www.venturariverwatershedadjudication.com

The City of Ventura is hosting several public meetings to answer questions about the adjudication process:

  • Thursday, Jan. 30, 6-8 p.m., Matilija Junior High School Auditorium, 703 El Paseo Road, Ojai
  • Wednesday, Feb. 12, 6-8 p.m., Bell Arts Factory, Community Room, 432 N. Ventura Ave., Ventura.
  • Thursday, Feb. 13, 6-8 p.m. Oak View Community Center, Kunkle Room, 18 Valley Road, Oak View.

A Community Town Hall meeting is being sponsored by the Ojai Valley News: 

  • Tuesday, Jan. 21, 5:30 p.m., Sarzotti Park, Boyd Center, 510 Park Road, Ojai
  • meeting will be livestreamed at www.ojaivalleynews.com. 

Disclosure: Kimberly Rivers was executive director of CFROG from May 2016 to Jan. 2019