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Study’s Good News Clouds Water Debate : Ventura: Told that its sources are adequate for 16 years, city may delay plans for either a desalination plant or a pipeline.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since the depths of the drought, Ventura has been wracked by debate over the best way to supply the city with more water: a desalination plant or a pipeline to the state water system.

Now a consultant has told the city it won’t need a new source of water for at least 16 years. But that seemingly welcome development has only complicated the politically charged debate.

“It’s a case of getting good news and not wanting it,” Mayor Tom Buford said. “It would almost be easier to make a decision if the news was bad.”

City leaders and political activists say the latest study, which concludes that Ventura has more water available than was previously estimated, may simply postpone a resolution of the city’s water options.

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In the fall, the Ventura City Council is scheduled to vote on whether to scrap a proposed desalination plant, consider other water sources or let a future City Council decide.

Ventura now gets its water from Lake Casitas, the Ventura River and underground aquifers. All three sources were depleted during the drought, causing city leaders to look for an additional source of water.

After ruling out such exotic options as towing icebergs from Alaska, city leaders were left with two possibilities: a desalination plant--favored by environmentalists and slow-growth advocates--or a state water pipeline, preferred by business and agricultural interests.

Voters had their say in an advisory measure in November, 1992, and they preferred desalination over state water by a margin of 55% to 45%.

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Although the City Council was divided on the desalination plant, council members began spending money on studies for the plant, even after the drought ended and the urgency of building a plant lessened. To date, the city has spent nearly $530,000 on such studies.

The latest findings by Boyle Engineering could be used by desalination opponents to justify delaying or dumping the project--a move that would leave the door open for state water.

Dana Weber Young, who helped lead the 1992 campaign for state water, called the report “a large blow” to the desalination movement.

Young said she doubts state water interests will begin clamoring to build a pipeline instead. But she said city leaders now have time to look at opportunities for cooperation with other cities and water agencies.

The city could consider building a pipeline in conjunction with other agencies--an option not seriously considered in 1992--that would be cheaper than constructing a desalination plant, Young said.

Councilman Steve Bennett, who helped lead the campaign for desalination in November, 1992, said the report is not a major setback for the desalination movement.

“I think what this report did was validate the desal option,” Bennett said.

While saying a desalination plant won’t be needed for at least 16 years, the report also said it would face no significant regulatory obstacles and that the water it produced would be cheaper than originally estimated.

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Bennett said he will continue to push his fellow council members to approve a long-term water plan that would include building a desalination plant as well as increasing water-storage capacity and building new treatment plants.

But Bennett may have a hard time doing that. He and Gary Tuttle are the only members of the seven-member council who publicly support desalination. Two others favor state water, and the other three say they are undecided.

With three council members up for reelection next year, the report could also be used to postpone the tough decision of whether to go ahead with the desalination plant. Both desalination and state water supporters may want to delay a decision in hopes of electing council members who will vote the way they want.

Councilman Jim Monahan, an avid state water supporter, said he thinks the council now has some leeway to make an informed decision.

“I don’t think we need to do anything just now,” Monahan said.

Monahan said he does not put much stock in the citizens’ advisory vote because, he said, residents were confused about what they were voting on.

“There was a lot of misinformation circulating during the campaign,” Monahan said.

Buford said he is undecided, but he wants the council to make a decision soon. Council members Greg Carson and Rosa Lee Measures say they also are undecided, while Councilman Jack Tingstrom favors state water.

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Most council members say they want to resolve the issue this year to avoid looking indecisive with the public. City officials say all work on the desalination plant has been halted until the council makes a decision.

“I don’t think we should become comfortable because of the new time frame and put it on the back burner,” Measures said.

But council members acknowledged that even if they do approve a long-term water plan for the city that includes a desalination plant someday, there is nothing to prevent a future council from junking the plan.

“We have to set a definite course,” Buford said. “The only way to prevent the issue from surfacing is to either build a desal plant or build a pipeline. But nothing will be built right now because I think we’d all agree at this point, we’re not desperate.”


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