Skip to content Skip to navigation

Painful Experience Helps to Chart the Future of Groundwater in Ventura County

Felicity Barringer
Nov 3 2017

The fraught statewide conditions that led to passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014? They afflicted Ventura decades earlier. What can we learn from their experience?

Oxnard plain from the air

Between the mountains and the sea Ventura county is an oasis of agriculture nestled on the coast between the sprawl of Los Angeles and the high-end parts of Santa Barbara. Doc Searls via Flickr

By Felicity Barringer

The formal birth of new agencies to keep California’s groundwater basins sustainable took place all over the state this summer. Like infants anywhere, dozens of new groundwater sustainability agencies present a range of appearances. Some are placid, some squall. Some have everything they need in order to develop. Some don’t.

How will they develop? That depends on how well pumpers, who rely on groundwater, accept the inevitable restrictions needed under the law requiring sustainable management. Some, particularly farmers, will lose automatic access to the water they want. One water manager said their path to accepting new limits echoes the psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance.

Under Decentralized Groundwater Reform, Local Agencies Face a Challenge to Carve Out Jurisdictions

In Ventura County, an oasis of agriculture nestled on the coast between the sprawl of Los Angeles and the high-end parts of Santa Barbara, pumpers are going through those stages. Nearly a dozen new groundwater agencies oversee basins, around the Santa Clara River or nearby watersheds, that irrigate both seaside flatlands, carpeted by strawberries and celery, and low hills full of avocado and lemon trees. In 2015, more than $2 billion worth of crops were grown on 100,000 acres.

Tony Morgan, deputy general manager of the United Conservation District, said, “it’s a prickly situation our friends in Sacramento have put us in.” He must “weave jurisdictions together and not stomp too hard on people’s toes.” But the work is going apace — plans are evolving so fast, public drafts are expected next month.

California’s Department of Water Resources designated 11 Ventura basins as needing immediate attention — or “high priority.” Each now has its own management. Two crucial players — the United Water Conservation District and the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency — have long dealt with groundwater crises, so Ventura has a head start. The agencies can monitor pumping, calculate yield and create agency governing boards including city and county governments, farmers and environmentalists.

Map: Ventura-Area Groundwater Basins Have Been Under Stress for Decades

Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West

A Groundwater Crisis Hit Ventura Decades Before the Drought of 2011-15

How did Ventura county get here ahead of other areas? Said John Grether, whose farm grows citrus fruit and avocados, many new agencies are “still having their first meeting. We had our first meeting 30 years ago.” The fraught statewide conditions that led to passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014 afflicted Ventura decades earlier.

Its coastal basins were so over-pumped by the 1930s that ocean water began to seep through the underground ramparts holding it back. (The loss of groundwater diminished the subsurface pressure keeping salt water out.) Persistent saline intrusion eventually made the state step in. The Fox Canyon agency was born.

Ventura-area farmland in 1975.

Ventura-area farmland in 1975. Charles O'Rear/Environmental Protection Agency via National Archives

Ventura’s coastal basins were so over-pumped by the 1930s that ocean water began to seep through the underground ramparts holding it back. Eventually the state stepped in, creating the Fox Canyon groundwater agency.

In the late 1980s, it called for a 25 percent cut in pumping over 20 years, ending in 2010. “We couldn’t tell you you couldn’t pump,” said Jeff Pratt, the public works director for Ventura County, who is Fox Canyon’s executive officer. “We could just tell you that if you pump more than a certain amount, it’s going to cost you a lot of money.” “The fines were real and they were huge,” said one farmer.

The 2014 statewide law kept Fox Canyon responsible for the groundwater in its basins. It now has a new stick and carrot. The stick: If it fails to keep the basins from deteriorating in the six specific ways, the Department of Water Resources can take over. State takeover is a potent threat. As for the carrot, Fox Canyon, now a groundwater sustainability agency, can collect a revenue and spend it on supply- side improvements. That, Mr. Pratt said, “is huge.”

Map: A New Layer of Groundwater Sustainability Management

Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West

Fox Canyon works in tandem with United. In 2005, a state report said, “groundwater management and planning functions overlap” between Fox Canyon and United. Fox Canyon handles “extractions and policy,” and United “planning and implementation.”

United uses basins under the Santa Clara River, plus portions of three others, to send water to municipal and agricultural pumpers. It invests the fees in improving water-supply infrastructure, like diverting part of the Santa Clara River, the better to recharge basins. In a 2016 report, United calculated an average annual overdraft of 56,200 acre-feet for the previous 10 years, and the estimated overdraft for 2016 was 86,000 acre-feet.

For New Agencies, Who Gets a Seat at the Table?

“We couldn’t tell you you couldn’t pump,” said Jeff Pratt, the public works director for Ventura County, who is Fox Canyon’s executive officer. “We could just tell you that if you pump more than a certain amount, it’s going to cost you a lot of money.” “The fines were real and they were huge,” said one farmer.

The first task of the new groundwater agencies was to form governing boards. Along the Santa Clara River, those boards include United, but Mr. Morgan said, “There’s a very strong feeling that those who pump and are going to foot the bill should have a strong voice. … That makes sense, but you need a strong policy focus.” County and city government representatives, farmers, and, often, an environmental representative are on each board.

A key element of the new agencies’ deliberations is technical expertise. As Mr. Morgan said, “we need to have a technically defensible way of saying, ‘How big is the pie?’” The answers to that and the question of allocation will guide crop decisions. “Different crops have different needs,” said Lynn Gray Jensen, who speaks for farmers as the executive director of Ventura’s Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. Produce markets are fickle, she said. “Right now this crop is hot. The next day some other crop may be hot.”

Mr. Grether said growers, who have absorbed decades of cutbacks, fret about unfair allocations. Some don’t know if they can keep going with more cuts. Planting decisions are made annually, so five-year hydrology reviews are out of sync with agriculture’s economic rhythm. Good science means “people will know more and make better decisions,” said Mr. Grether — but farmers can’t wait for perfection.

Map: With Urban Density and Intensive Cultivation, Water Demand Stays Strong

Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West

How Much Pumping is Too Much? The Challenge of Defining “Sustainable Yield”

The chief task facing new boards is scientific — figuring out how much water can be pumped without causing “significant and unreasonable” consequences, like lowering water levels or water quality, or letting seawater intrude. The legal term is “sustainable yield.”

The chief task facing new boards is scientific — figuring out how much water can be pumped without causing “significant and unreasonable” consequences. The legal term is “sustainable yield.”

Lynn Jensen thinks the county and Fox Canyon are moving too fast. “They’re trying to shove this agenda through. They say, ‘It’s not going to be perfect.’ That’s fine if it’s not your water and your land.”

For Kimball R. Loeb, Ventura County’s groundwater manager, knowing the exact size of the pie is not necessary in the short run. Instead, he will accept a range of estimates, a “confidence band.” Sustainable yield, he said, “will be between the high number and the low number.” In the short term, he added, “we’re going to base pumping reductions on the high-end number.” The underlying science will be refined continually.

All steps of creating sustainability plans are being done simultaneously. “We’re continuing to fly the plane as we build it,” he said. Geologists and engineers in an advisory group are using their individual scientific lenses to analyze the basins. Mr. Loeb “has to get all these experts and corral them and try to get them to play together,” Mr. Pratt said.

A Key to Meeting Milestones: Keeping Disputes Out of the Courts

If pumpers object to their allocations, they may sue, starting an expensive and time-consuming legal process called adjudication. It ensures that courts make allocation decisions. Farmers who opt for this are gambling judges will give them a better deal than regulators. Will anyone take the gamble? “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Jurgen Gramckow, a sod farmer.

“Here’s the dilemma,” he added. “We have all these technical questions to answer in terms of what’s the safe yield of each basin, how do the basins interact, that sort of thing…. Say we solve that. Then the question is: ‘What’s your share? How much are you going to get?’ That’s going to be much less than you’ve been getting. How do we spread the pain?”

As for the long-term future, Mr. Grether is cautiously optimistic. “There’s going to be creative thinking” about enhancing supply, he said. The law sets a 20-year path to sustainability. The cuts needed “are big changes, if you only look at the endpoint. If you look at the year-to-year change, it’s not that big.”

How things play out in Ventura and around the state will show how collaborative government can work — or not. Esther Conrad, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University’s Water in the West program*, looks at the issue with an academic eye: “An experiment in common-pool resource governance is under way.”

* Water in the West is a joint program of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

Corrections

An earlier version of this story misidentified the Ojai groundwater basin as being under adjudication. The new groundwater sustainability agency there was created by the state legislature and the basin is not subject to adjudication. We regret the error.

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Tracking Proposed National Monument Reductions in the West

New details have emerged about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke's proposal to modify national monuments designated since 1996.

 

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Nina Danza Ventura

Responding to Painful Experience Helps to Chart the Future of Groundwater in Ventura County

Tell the federally endangered steelhead trout, who are on the brink of extinction in the Santa Clara River due to surface water diversion and groundwater extraction, that the sustainability plan is being developed too slow. Caltrout, and a huge consortium of stakeholders locally and nationally, have recognized this river as THE LAST MOSTLY intact riparian ecosystem left in the southern half of California. Where is the environment's piece of the water pie??

11/7/2017, 7:08am

Larry Yee Ojai, Calif.

Responding to Painful Experience Helps to Chart the Future of Groundwater in Ventura County

On one of your VC basin maps you have the Ojai Basin as adjudicated. I don't think that's correct. Could you pls double check.

11/5/2017, 8:59am

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer and Carolyn P. Rice

Articles Worth Reading: Feb. 11, 2019

New Restrictions on Colorado River Withdrawals in Dry Times Are Close, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation says, in effect, “close only counts in the game of horseshoes.” The Arizona state legislature met the bureau’s deadline as it agreed to the drought contingency plan formulated by all three states in the river’s lower basin, but the final deals with Native tribes and with California’s Imperial Irrigation District aren’t done yet. The arguments go on. Cronkite News

Native Trout Are Making a Comeback in Colorado, but It’s Taken Decades. As the West was colonized, so were its streams; native fish suffered as non-native ones were introduced. The native greenback cutthroat trout was mistakenly declared extinct in 1937, but its history turns out to be much more complicated. Today, the subspecies survives, but barely, and scientists do not agree on a solution for the fish’s future. Biographic

Ranchers in Montana Want Consumers to Know Where Beef Comes From. The U.S. imports roughly 10 percent of its beef -- from countries like Canada, Argentina and Uruguay -- but it doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Country of origin labeling, Montana ranchers argue, will help consumers make more informed choices--and think it will be good for business. If passed, a bill in the Montana State Senate would require this labeling, as well as prohibit labeling as “meat” the cell-based meat now grown in vitro in laboratories. That decision which could be detrimental to this nascent industry. Civil Eats

Sustainable Development and Gentrification Do Not Have to Go Hand in Hand. An affordable housing project in an industrial, low-income neighborhood of Portland could show the country how green infrastructure can help alleviate poverty and keep communities intact. This project includes weatherization of mobile homes and sustainable landscaping. High Country News

We Need Maps to Comprehend the Scale of the Grand Canyon. Be careful, though–some maps are more attractive than they are accurate. As the iconic national park’s 100th anniversary approaches, listen to the Science Friday podcast explore the history of Western mapmaking through the lens of the maps of the Grand Canyon. Science Friday

Art Installations Thrive in the Coachella Valley. Desert X, a biennial art exhibit, opened this past weekend. It showcases art in mediums that range from fabric to cell phone, all to connect people with the valley and its human history. Explore some of the installations in this photo gallery. The Desert Sun

Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 28, 2019

Wildfires Can Cause Thunderstorms, and the world is witnessing more of these as fires become more common and more intense. Scientists still struggle to understand the exact mechanisms behind the storms, but the effects have become clearer. Lightning can spark additional fires, and winds can hamper firefighting efforts. Particles and gases in the clouds can affect weather patterns on the same scale as small volcanoes. Mother Jones

A Surprising Source of Pollution Sits on the Ocean Floor off of California’s Central Coast: Golf Balls. The little spheres from coastal golf courses release chemical pollutants and break down into bits of plastic that can enter the food chain. A local teenager and a Stanford University scientist found and began to remove golf balls from the waters off of Pebble Beach by the thousands, but more keep falling in. NPR

Mapping as a Way of Creating Indigenous Dialogue Around Place and Art: Jim Enote, an indigenous farmer and museum director, says that because most maps use colonial names, borders, and ideas of space, expanding the definition of maps has been a necessary part of his process. National Geographic

Decrepit Dams in Washington State May Flood Towns Downstream. A recent wildfire made the landscape more prone to runoff, and the dams cannot store the increased winter rainfall associated with a warmer climate. Attempts to repair and modify the dams have highlighted the financial and political challenges of managing remote wilderness. as local agriculture and salmon habitat rely on the shrinking summer water supply. The Seattle Times

Animals From Insects to Wolves May Suffer From Construction Along the U.S.-Mexico Border. Physical barriers and habitat loss can separate animal populations and limit migration. Over 1,500 native plants and animals in the region could be affected by construction of a wall, according to a 2018 report signed by nearly 3,000 scientists. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 15, 2019

Pacific Northwest Farmers Have Silos Full of Unsold Legumes. The price of garbanzo beans fell by more than half after changes to U.S. trade policy and sanctions on China last year reduced exports. Farmers had already expanded their production, and now they must find a way to pay their debts. Oregon Public Broadcasting

The City of Spokane Is Trying to Clean Up Its Groundwater, which has been polluted by industrial toxins since World War II. Washington state has recently increased the strictness of its water quality standards, but implementation of these standards faces financial, political, and technological challenges. The pollution has accumulated to dangerous levels in the Spokane River fish, which is of particular consequence to the diet and health of the indigenous Spokane people. High Country News

Is Hunting Elk Out of Season Illegal for A Member of the Crow (Apsáalooke) Tribe? The state of Wyoming imprisoned Clayvin Herrera for hunting elk, but the Crow argue that the conviction violates their treaty with the U.S. The case of Herrera v. Wyoming was heard in the Supreme Court last week, and it draws attention to the complexities and contradictions of legal relationships between the U.S. and tribal nations. The Atlantic

Phoenix Has a Public Health Crisis: Heat. Hot days are more frequent, temperatures are rising with climate change, and more than 155 heat-related deaths happened last summer in Phoenix. The city is searching for ways to keep cool during the summer, including umbrellas, text alerts, and creating more shade. The groups that suffer the most, however, are those with the least ability to change their circumstances: low-income communities and the elderly. NPR

Scientists Are Collecting Pictures of Snowflakes from School Children to Analyze Snow Formation and Weather Patterns. Students in the Sierra Nevada can use their phones to take photos of snowflakes and upload them to a citizen science database. Compared to other technologies, this is a more efficient and less expensive means of collecting data on snow conditions, and it gives students the opportunity to learn about research. Science Friday

Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 7, 2019

National Park Life in a Shutdown Situation Means No Snowplows, Few Toilets and Overflowing Trash. Now the Interior Department is taking the unprecedented step of using entrance fees to pay for basic housekeeping – a use that may contravene the mandates of Congress. Around the system, operations are ad hoc. With fresh snow covering the roads and no personnel available to plow them, Arches and Canyonlands national parks shut their gates a week ago as the federal government’s partial shutdown ground headed into its third week. Utah has been funding some personnel costs, but that money was being used to staff visitor centers and clean toilets, not clear roads. In other states, nonprofits, businesses and state governments put up money and volunteer hours to keep parks safe and clean. But makeshift arrangements haven’t prevented some parks from closing and others from being inundated with trash, hence the move to repurpose visitor fees. Salt Lake Tribune Washington Post

After Years of Increasingly Inadequate Fire-fighting Budgets, a Fix Passed by Congress Takes Effect later this year creating a $2.25 billion emergency fund federal officials can use when firefighting costs exceed the firefighting budget. The head of the forest service said it can now better plan when responding to catastrophic fires. Under the fix, the annual firefighting budget would remain at a little more than $1 billion per year, but in fiscal 2020 – which begins Oct. 1 – there will be $2.25 billion to fund operations once the regular fund is spent. The emergency fund would grow by $100 million a year, reaching $2.95 billion in fiscal 2027. ASU/Cronkite News

Banning Heights, a Tiny Central Valley Town, Has an Inadequate Water Supply using broken infrastructure; the private utility responsible for maintaining it has failed to do so. For years, residents in this rural enclave tucked above the Interstate 10 freeway have tried to make Southern California Edison repair century-old pipes taking water from San Gorgonio mountains to their homes. Last year the local water company spent $178,000 ensuring adequate flow for basic health, sanitation and firefighting. Meanwhile, water continued to flow above the community from the Whitewater River, pouring out of unrepaired pipes and around deteriorating dams; 98 million gallons leaked into the dirt during fire season. For 15 years, the utility has tried to surrender its license for the hydroelectric system to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC, Banning Heights and the city of Banning say: fix the system first. Desert Sun

The Pacific Northwest Once Boasted Widespread Beaver-Built Salmon Habitat. Now the Tulalip tribes are trying to bring the beaver dams back. After Europeans decimated most of the 400 million beaverds they found in North America, beaver dams crumbled and the ponds and streams slowly disappeared. So did the salmon they supported. More recently, the sentiment that Castor canadensis is a tree-felling, water-stealing, property-flooding pest dominated state agencies in Washington, Oregon and California. But many scientists and land managers are discovering beavers can serve as agents of water conservation, habitat creation, and stream restoration – not to mention groundwater recharge. In Washington, a revised Beaver Bill allows beaver relocations on both sides of the mountains, sailed through. Starting this year, non-tribal groups, like environmental nonprofits, will be able to relocate the animals. BioGraphic

Is It Time to Start Eating Roadkill in Places Outside Alaska? Every year, between 600 and 800 moose are killed in Alaska by cars, leaving up to 250,000 pounds of organic, free-range meat on the road. State troopers who respond to these collisions keep a list of charities and families who have agreed to drive to the scene of an accident at any time, in any weather, to haul away and butcher the body. “It goes back to the traditions of Alaskans: We’re really good at using our resources,” Alaska State Trooper David Lorring said. The state;s tradition of making do means it would be embarrassing to waste the meat. In the past few years, a handful of states, including Washington, Oregon and Montana, have started to adopt the attitude that Alaskans have always had toward eating roadkill. A loosening of class stigma and the questionable ethics and economics of leaving dinner to rot by the roadside have driven acceptance of the practice in the Lower 48. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: Dec. 17, 2018

Pollution on the California-Mexico Border, Some Carried by the New River, flows though the region. Some of it wafts through the air that carries factory fumes over Mexico and Calexico, Some rises from fetid garbage dumps. It all does serious harm to the health of local residents. A series of articles show smokestacks, traffic exhaust, dust, and smoke from trash fires, often leave the cities blanketed in hazy air. The pollution is linked to high rates of respiratory illnesses and deaths. The Desert Sun

We Knew the California Snowpack Was Declining. Now We Know How Fast: 79 Percent by the century’s end. As it fades, much less snowmelt can be drawn on to fill huge reservoirs such as Shasta, Oroville and Folsom. All this as the state’s population and farm economy continue to grow. The new reality that will require fundamental changes in the way California and the federal government have operated the state’s water system for nearly 100 years. San Jose Mercury-News

In Sacramento, Two New Decisions on Dividing the Waters. In one, the state’s top water agency decides to send more water to Delta fish populations on the San Joaquin River, angering farmers and cities. In another, the governor defers to the federal government and makes more water available to farmers. Sacramento Bee
Sacramento Bee

A Federal Ultimatum Declared on a Colorado River drought contingency plan. Get it done by January 31, said the Bureau of Reclamation Representative told the seven states negotiating the plan — or we’ll do it for you. California and Arizona are the last states to fall into line. But this plan, when it is final, could be a bridge to another agreement to manage the water world of the Southwest as the climate changes and the water disappears. Also: how to think about the future. Denver Post Cronkite News John Fleck

Big Utilities Plan Power Shutoffs to Avoid Sparking Wildfires, while the experience of the Camp Fire indicates that small local power grids enhance the resilience of areas in the wildland-urban interface. Utility Drive

Should Washington State Breach Dams to Preserve Orcas? The decline of Puget Sound’s orca population has many probable causes: toxins in the water, noise from boats and lack of food. Chinook salmon are its primary food, and salmon runs are feeble, despite tens of millions spent by hydropower authorities to bolster salmon runs. As part of a $1 billion-plus save-the-orca effort, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee unveiled a $750,000 plan to investigate the impact should four Lower Snake River dams be removed. It drew criticism from the northwest’s congressional Republicans. Idaho Statesman

Graphics & the West

 

Recent Center News

Feb 14 2019 | Stanford News Service | Center News
Two experts from Stanford’s Water in the West program explain the potential impacts on the future of water in California of the proposed plan to downsize the $17 billion Delta twin tunnels project.
Feb 11 2019 | Happenings
The richness of his lived experience, said the actor Wes Studi in a Jan. 29 appearance, is part of what has allowed him to take on complicated and powerful roles.
Feb 11 2019 | ... & the West Blog
The drama over the Colorado River’s Drought Contingency Plan continues; stealthy trout cling to survival; the wonder of old maps, art in the desert; and other recent environmental stories of interest.