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Ventura Vote Leaves Water Agencies High and Dry : Pipeline: Residents favor desalination. Groups counting on the city to join in a state system hookup review options.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura’s Election Day vote for a desalination plant over a pipeline to the California Aqueduct has left leaders of nearby water agencies searching for a new source to slake their customers’ growing thirst.

If the Ventura City Council agrees as promised to abide by the voters’ wishes, the city will forsake other water agencies that were counting on Ventura to pick up the largest share of the costs of a pipeline to the state water system.

The Casitas Municipal Water District, which serves 55,000 people in the Ojai Valley and western Ventura, and the five agencies and cities in the Santa Clara River Valley and Oxnard Plain are entitled to a combined 10,000 acre-feet of water a year from the state’s massive water system.

But, for now, they are left without an acceptable way to bring the water to their section of Ventura County.

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“We have lost the opportunity to have a project that would have allowed a lot of agencies to work together,” said John Johnson, general manager of Casitas Municipal Water District. “We were all in this together to work something out and Ventura has now said they are going it alone and want to be independent.”

The residents of Ventura voted 55% to 45% in favor of building a desalination plant to desalt 7,000 acre-feet of water a year for an annual estimated cost of $30.4 million. An acre-foot of water, about 326,000 gallons, is enough to serve two average families for a year.

A majority of City Council members have vowed to abide by the will of the voters. A council decision is expected at Monday night’s meeting on whether to move forward.

Ventura, which pays about $800,000 a year to maintain its option to draw on state water supplies, must decide whether to continue paying the state to reserve its water rights. A special water advisory committee recommended that city leaders wait until the desalination plant is operating before it considers relinquishing its rights to state water.

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The city could sell or assign its rights to another water agency within the county. It could also try to sell its rights to an agency outside the county to recoup some of the $8 million it has paid to keep the allocation since 1964. But a transfer to an agency outside the county is not permitted under current state regulations.

On Tuesday, voters surprised state water supporters by rejecting the City Hall-backed plan to build a 30-mile pipeline to the Ventura County-Los Angeles County line.

The pipeline was proposed as a cooperative effort among Ventura, Casitas water agency and the United Water Conservation District, with Santa Paula, and possibly Fillmore, Piru, Port Hueneme or the Channel Islands Beach Community Service District using most or all of United’s allocation.

The pipeline, with an estimated cost of $24.2 million per year to deliver 9,000 acre-feet of water, would have stretched from Ventura to the Los Angeles County line. There, it would have connected to a pipeline built by the Castaic Lake Water Agency. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is also considering laying a pipeline to a point just east of Fillmore, where the Ventura County agencies might have tied into the system.

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From either Fillmore or the county line, the pipeline would ultimately connect with Castaic Lake, one of 22 dams and reservoirs in the State Water Project that includes 648 miles of pumps, pipes and canals, including the 444-mile California Aqueduct, carrying Northern California water to Southern California.

Leaders at Casitas and the United water agencies said they have not ruled out continuing the work toward building a pipeline without Ventura’s participation. But the prospect is dim because their share of costs would jump substantially.

The Casitas district, which operates Lake Casitas reservoir, has ample supplies of water for the next several years, thanks to the last two years of above-normal rainfall. But Casitas manager Johnson said that by the turn of the century, the district will no longer be able to meet the growing needs of its customers.

“Right now we have high reservoir levels and low demands, so a drought today would not cause any real problems,” Johnson said. “But in the long term, we need new water.”

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The district has not yet considered buying desalinated water from Ventura, he said. But other options include drilling new wells to increase supply and enlarging the canal that diverts water from the hills above Ojai to Lake Casitas.

Johnson said Casitas could also follow a system to get its state water now used by the United water agency.

United, which operates a reservoir at Lake Piru, calls on the state to release its allocation of water from Pyramid Lake, a State Water Project reservoir northeast of Ventura County. The water flows down Piru Creek and into Lake Piru. From there it is released again into Piru Creek, which continues south until its confluence with the Santa Clara River.

The water then travels down the river past Fillmore and Santa Paula to the Freeman Diversion dam at Saticoy. There it is diverted to replenish ground water basins, which are pumped by cities and growers.

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If Casitas were to follow that scenario, the water would never actually reach Lake Casitas. Instead, Casitas would be “credited” for the water through cooperative agreements with United, Ventura and other agencies.

When needed, Casitas could also require conservation throughout the district by implementing an existing ordinance that cuts allocations and prohibits new connections, Johnson said.

“Our plans for ensuring an adequate water supply have become more difficult to implement,” he said. Johnson said he had not completely given up hope that Ventura residents will someday reconsider joining an effort to build a state water pipeline.

“Santa Barbara had a vote in 1978 and turned down a pipeline then,” he said. But residents voted in 1991 to build a pipeline to connect with the California Aqueduct in addition to building a desalination plant. “It’s possible that could happen here,” he said.

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Norman S. Wilkinson, director of public works and city engineer for Santa Paula, said his city had hoped to use 2,000 acre-feet of United’s water to improve the water quality for the city.

“The pipeline doesn’t look nearly as hopeful now,” he said. But, he contended, the city could still join with Casitas to build a pipeline connection from Metropolitan Water District’s line through Santa Paula and north along California 150 into the Ojai Valley to connect with Casitas.

“It’s still feasible,” he said. “But some of the other alternatives start to look better now.”

For Santa Paula, those alternatives include continuing to pump mineral-laden ground water and build a reverse osmosis plant to treat the water. The city would have to find a way to dispose of residue from the reverse osmosis process. But, he said, taking the salt and other minerals from ground water is much cheaper than desalting seawater.

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Wilkinson said Fillmore may also want to treat its ground water in a similar manner and the two cities could share the cost of a pipeline to carry the waste matter to the ocean.

Santa Paula could also take state water sent down the Santa Clara River, or even help build a pipeline directly from Lake Piru instead of from Castaic Lake.

“Those weren’t the best alternatives, but without Ventura they become more viable now,” Wilkinson said. The costs must still be investigated, he said.

The cities of Fillmore and Port Hueneme and communities of Piru and Channel Islands are still exploring options. But they could also include reverse osmosis treatment of ground water, said Frederick J. Gientke, general manager of the United Water Conservation District.

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So far, thirsty cities and water agencies have been unwilling to send their share of state water down the Santa Clara River, largely because the water would diminish in quality as it picks up minerals from the riverbed. The agencies also would lose water to evaporation and percolation, although the amount varies with weather conditions and saturation of the riverbed.

For United, sending water down the Santa Clara River works because any water percolating into the soil helps recharge ground water basins in the Santa Clara River Valley and the Oxnard Plain--the water agency’s responsibility.

But Gientke said he wants Ventura to send its state water allotment down the Santa Clara during the four to six years it will take to build a desalination plant. He suggested the city and United could share the cost of bringing Ventura’s allotted water down the river to replenish ground water basins.

If Ventura agreed to use its allotted water to help refill aquifers, Gientke said it might resolve United’s lawsuit against the city over a new well that United claims was drilled without proper study of the environmental consequences.

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But Shelly Jones, Ventura’s director of public works, said the city has no intention of releasing its allotted water down the river.

“That would be of benefit to the region, but it doesn’t benefit Ventura,” he said. “Talk about running our water down the river is wishful thinking.”

Instead, during the interim the city will probably concentrate on drilling four new wells to extract more ground water, Jones said.

Meanwhile, the cities and agencies that had counted on beginning work immediately on a joint pipeline project are regrouping, calling new meetings and forming new alliances.

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