The future of water in Ojai in drought

Here’s a panel discussion (below) put on by the Ojai Valley Green Coalition and the Ojai Film Festival on the future of water here in town. May I say despite being the moderator that I think it’s a good one. This was for a large audience at the Arts Center on the 27th of October.

The fact that the town and its agricultural growers are facing an existential crisis — a drought that could last for decades — dials up the interest.

Let me just mention a few specific questions that came up, and quote the truly distinguished panelists on the future of water in Ojai in drought. (The video, which was shot and edited by Ray Powers, is a little less than forty-five minutes long.)

On the issues: first, Steve Wickstrum, who has been manager of the Casitas Municipal Water District for thirty years or more, was asked about how much water Lake Casitas has remaining in storage.

He said his calculations showed that the district right now has about four years of water left, but he indicated that with conservation, especially from the agricultural sector — which uses about 70% — the district had perhaps six or seven years worth of water.

And he reminded the audience of 150 or so at the Arts Center in downtown Ojai that state water would be a “Herculean” engineering effort. He said that it wouldn’t be possible for a “nominal fee.”

At the start of the event, I impulsively asked the audience if state water was available and not too expensive, would Ojai choose to join the rest of Southern California or would it maintain its tradition of local sustainability?

In l952, in a drought, the approximately 9000 voters of Ojai in that era voted by a more than 8-to-1 margin to form the water district and build Lake Casitas, which has kept the town in water for nearly seventy years.

Only about two people raised a hand to hook up with state water. One was a member of the Casitas board, and he later suggested that perhaps the audience was taken by surprise and not thinking it through sufficiently — after all, Casitas has been paying for the right to draw on state water for many years.

I asked the panel about the possibility of bringing state water to Casitas. Is that a matter of practicality, or is that a matter of principle? For Paul Jenkin, a civil engineer and a passionate environmentalist who has been working to restore local watersheds for many years as part of Surfrider, it’s a matter of principle.

“I think [local sustainability] is the greatest asset that we have,” Jenkin. “If you saw this film, you know that state water is not going to ever be a reliable source for us. And you have to ask about other agencies that are interested in through passing that water to us. For them to be hooked all the way into Lake Casitas, that’s their backup. And if state water ever becomes unavailable, it’s going the other way.”

I asked about megadrought. A recent study estimated that the Southwest — including Ojai — has a 90% chance of a megadrought, which means a drought of thirty-five years or longer, this century. It’s possible we’re in a megadrought now. I asked if we as a state are systematically underestimating the risk of megadrought.

Tom Ash, a water conservation manager in Irvine Ranch, said no, we are not taking megadrought seriously. “I see that in the context of working with [water agencies] from all over the state, as Stephanie [Pincetl] does as well, and we see a tremendous battle, you could say, in that we see more a desire to sell water than to conserve water. We’ve been talking about efficiency, about non-point source solution, and other conservation measures. We have to do everything and my frustration is that we’ve come a ways, but we haven’t come nearly far enough, fast enough.”

So — besides increasing supply with conservation, what can be done to prevent an increase in demand due to an on-going expansion of housing in Ventura, and in agriculture in Ojai?). Stephanie Pincetl, of UCLA, who has been working in conservation and sustainability for decades, mentioned a couple of possibilities:

“So there is one thing that can be done,” Pincelt said. “And that is to require water neutrality of any new development. And this has been implemented in a number of places across the state. So you can build whatever you want to build, but you’re not getting any new water. So you have to mitigate the water required by that new development with conservation somewhere else…and I agree [with Paul Jenkin] that it’s kind of stunning that new [agricultural] production is coming on line in this drought. It just seems that a moratorium on that sort of development should be considered.”

“Everybody has a part to play,” she said, a little earlier. “It’s not urban or ag. Imagine Ojai Valley without agriculture. How would it feel? Really different, and probably not that great, and you wouldn’t have that fabulous farmer’s market. It has to be not either/or, but us together, or we’re not getting out of the problem.”

Ojai Valley Green Coalition: The Future of Water Panel Discussion 11.6.16 720 from Ojai Valley Green Coalition on Vimeo.


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