PICTURED: Lower Ventura River Watershed. Photo by Jimmy Young for CFROG

by Ben Pitterle

I’m writing to the VC Reporter to offer clarification for property owners in the Ventura River watershed about Santa Barbara Channelkeeper’s role in the groundwater adjudication initiated by the city of Ventura.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization that works to protect and restore the Santa Barbara Channel and its watersheds (including the Ventura River) through science-based advocacy, education, field work and enforcement. We are aware that residents throughout the Ventura River watershed recently received notice from the city of Ventura that the city has commenced an adjudication of water rights.

Since 2001, Channelkeeper has been actively working in the Ventura River watershed to monitor water quality, address pollution and habitat degradation, provide environmental education, engage volunteers and promote public recreation and access in the watershed. Through our nearly two decades of involvement in this work, Channelkeeper identified the city of Ventura’s pumping from the river at Foster Park as a key detrimental impact harming wildlife and other beneficial uses of the river.

No limits have ever been placed on the city’s pumping at Foster Park. Despite Channelkeeper’s extensive advocacy, the State Water Board and city of Ventura did not resolve to address this problem. The city circumvented prior efforts by the National Marine Fisheries Service to regulate pumping at Foster Park to protect endangered species. State regulatory agencies didn’t take action, and despite the city’s assurances that it was managing its river resources sustainably, official city water budget documents showed that the city in fact planned to expand its pumping at Foster Park.

As a result, Channelkeeper filed suit against the State Water Board and the city in 2014 in an effort to specifically address the city’s excessive pumping from its well field at Foster Park, which was consistently dewatering the river to the detriment of wildlife and other important beneficial uses of the river.

Santa Barbara Channelkeeper did NOT initiate adjudicatory procedures in the Ventura River watershed, nor did Channelkeeper partner with the city as it did so.

The city of Ventura initiated the Groundwater Basin Adjudication and issued cross-complaints against those who own or may own a water right in the Ventura River. Channelkeeper’s actions up to this point have been very specifically tailored to focus solely on the city of Ventura, given its disproportionate impact on diminishing flows in the Ventura River. In order to avoid delay in resolving concerns with the city’s over-pumping at Foster Park, Channelkeeper sought to have the city’s cross-complaints against other Ventura River water rights holders dismissed by the court, which it initially ordered be done. The city, however, appealed that ruling, and the appellate court allowed the cross-complaints to move forward.

Now that the city of Ventura has initiated an adjudication, Channelkeeper is a party to the adjudicatory proceedings. Adjudication is a more lengthy and involved process than Channelkeeper sought to resolve issues related to the Foster Park well field; however, the process should ultimately result in a more sustainable balance between the needs of people, endangered species and other wildlife on a watershed-wide scale.

In the meantime, our focus is to ensure that adequate water is left in the river until the process is completed and that the final outcome adequately provides for the ecological needs of the river. It is not Channelkeeper’s role to weigh in on how water is allocated amongst users in the watershed.

The legal notices that water right holders have received are a procedural requirement of the adjudicatory process initiated by the city. The city’s distribution list was comprehensive, but the notice should only directly impact those who divert water from the Ventura River, have a groundwater well, or have plans to develop groundwater rights by drilling a well in the future on their property. Channelkeeper encourages all interested parties to attend one of the city’s upcoming adjudication workshops to receive more information and ask questions.

To learn more about Channelkeeper’s work to restore flows in the Ventura River by addressing the city’s pumping, please visit www.sbck.org/rtr.

Ben Pitterle is the science and policy director of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper.