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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.

 

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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

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A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

May 6 2021 | ... & the West Blog
The Navajo Nation has the most capacity, but its troubled energy history and culture of livestock grazing make solar development fraught.
May 3 2021 | Out West student blog
Julia Leal starts her summer as an intern for the United States Army Corps of Engineers.
Apr 26 2021 | Out West student blog
Theo Bamberger talks about the start to their internship with the Kittitas Environmental Education Network.