In an effort to help stem the flow of seawater into the county’s largest and most valuable underground water supply as cheaply as possible, an area water district is working to turn abandoned gravel pits into fresh-water reservoirs.
The pits would be filled with water diverted from the Santa Clara River, especially during heavy rains when existing holding ponds are at capacity. They would then be used to reduce pumping from the deep Fox Canyon Aquifer, which is slowly becoming tainted by seawater.
United Water Conservation District, which oversees ground-water pumping in much of the county, hopes to convert seven one-time mining pits into small reservoirs by the turn of the century.
United plans to test the feasibility of the project at one abandoned mine, known as the Noble pit in Saticoy, which may be ready to accept water by spring.
Although the entire seven-reservoir project carries a hefty price tag of about $10 million for up to 15,000 acre-feet of water per year, the plan to use the already excavated land keeps costs lower, said Frederick J. Gientke, United general manager.
Gientke figures the water will cost about $80 per acre-foot when the debt is spread over 20 to 30 years.
“That’s a real bargain,” Gientke said. “It’s (like) free water at that price.”
The district pays about $225 an acre-foot for water delivered by the state Department of Water Resources.
Ventura County Supervisor John K. Flynn, who is a member of the county’s Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, agreed.
“That’s cheap, cheap, cheap, compared to building a new dam,” he said.
Flynn called the plan “an excellent project because it will reduce pumping from the Fox Canyon.”
But the project has run into opposition in the form of a lawsuit that claims the environmental effects of converting all seven pits were inadequately studied.
Gientke, whose district considered only the effects of the Noble pit conversion, counters that the first conversion will help predict any problems that could occur with the remaining six.
The Fox Canyon Seawater Intrusion Abatement Program is the most recent of several projects implemented over the years throughout the county to replenish underground water supplies.
Because growers and cities annually pump about 100,000 acre-feet more than rainwater alone can replenish, the Fox Canyon is gradually receding and seawater is encroaching.
An acre-foot of water is enough to meet the needs of one or two families per year, depending on the size of the family and water use.
The new abatement program would work like this: Water coming down the Santa Clara River would be captured by the Freeman Diversion dam at Saticoy.
The water would be channeled into existing settling ponds, which are used to help refill shallow aquifers. From there, excess water would be shipped via a new canal under Los Angeles Avenue to the Noble pit off Vineyard Avenue.
Water stored in the gravel pit would then be shipped via pipeline to growers on the Oxnard Plain.
In turn, those growers would decrease their pumping from the deep Fox Canyon Aquifer, which water officials have likened to a mine because they believe it is a finite resource.
United is in negotiations with CalMat Co., a Los Angeles-based mining company with a large operation in Saticoy, to buy the Noble pit. The Noble pit is a basin of about 110 acres sunk 25 feet deep that CalMat excavated for sand and gravel during the 1970s and 1980s.
United’s board of directors approved the plan for the $3-million Noble pit conversion in June, based on a consultant’s study showing there would be no significant environmental impacts.
But John S. Garrison, an employee of Ventura attorney and former Mayor Richard Francis, filed suit against United on July 12, charging that the district was attempting to circumvent requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act.
The act requires that environmental effects from the total project, which would include all seven pits, be studied before the first project begins, Francis said.
“It’s costing a lot of people a lot of money to try out the project without doing an adequate study first,” Francis said.
Cathy Brown, biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service who specializes in riparian habitat, said she was not aware of any problems for wildlife that could result if the Noble pit were converted.
She said gravel pits can have significant environmental impacts on fish and wildlife when mining is done in the river bed. But the Noble pit is about half a mile from the Santa Clara River.
And the mining process itself does not add or leave behind any foreign materials.
“All they do is use big, heavy machinery to excavate and scrape away the rock and sand,” she said.
G. Thomas Davis, senior project manager for CalMat Co., said the process of retrieving sand and gravel for use in streets and canals and sidewalks is a “very simple process. We take the sand and gravel and screen it and crush it and wash it.”
Davis said the company has sold abandoned pits in Orange County for similar purposes.