Seeking a way to share water in droughts and other emergencies, three water agencies and the cities of Oxnard and Ventura are considering an historic agreement that could eventually link their water systems.
The agreement among the cities, Casitas and Calleguas municipal water districts and the United Water Conservation District would lay a pipeline to connect existing water distribution systems.
Officials hope the Federal Emergency Management Agency would pick up most of the cost to link the systems with a pipeline across the Santa Clara River. Estimates to link the systems range from $1 million all the way up to $30 million, depending on the extent of the program and the source of the estimate. The agencies have applied for a FEMA grant, but have yet to hear about the project's chances for funding, said John Johnson, Casitas general manager.
But even without federal funding, Johnson said the agencies might be able to share the cost among themselves and thus better prepare the county for emergencies.
During the Jan. 17 earthquake, water pipelines were ruptured in Simi Valley, leaving some residents without water for days. And during the drought, Santa Barbara County spent millions to import only a few hundred acre-feet of water.
"If somehow we can have a united, or at least a cooperative county, all of the citizens would be better off under emergencies," Johnson said.
Ventura Mayor Tom Buford said the proposed agreement among the agencies is the result of a long-standing desire for an emergency water plan. But, he said, the earthquake was the impetus to kick-start the plan and apply for federal funding.
"Ideally, we would have everybody hooked up to everybody else so that in times of need, we could share," Buford said.
Don Kendall, Calleguas general manager, described the proposal as merely a starting point to connect the Calleguas distribution system with the city of Ventura and the Casitas district.
Calleguas, a water wholesaler that covers two-thirds of the county, imports water from Northern California and elsewhere and distributes it to Moorpark, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, Camarillo and Oxnard. To link that system to Ventura and Casitas, crews would have to build a pipeline across the Santa Clara River.
The proposal, which is outlined in a memorandum, has "provisions that could bring all the parties to the table and give us a chance to discuss engineering possibilities," Kendall said. "This memorandum establishes that we are agreeing to try to agree. But it's really just the cornerstone."
Calleguas' five-member board of directors is expected to review the proposed agreement at its Wednesday meeting. Other agencies are expected to follow, although no schedules have been set.
The proposal states that all five agencies acknowledge they want to formulate a plan to link the systems, but that they are not committing to any specific project.
But if the cities and agencies agree on a plan, it would be the first time they have joined forces to build an emergency water system.
The leaders who worked on the proposal concede, however, that a pipeline across the Santa Clara River could establish a permanent line to bring imported water to Ventura, which now relies on Casitas Reservoir, Ventura River and ground water.
"Its purpose would be for emergency, but if we have the plumbing system set up, we might be able to use it for other purposes," Buford said.
Making the transition from emergency to permanent, however, could be too costly and cumbersome to consider, officials said.
Even in an emergency, Calleguas would need approval from its supplier, the Metropolitan Water District, to provide water to areas outside its boundaries.
Should Ventura want to join the Calleguas and MWD systems and become a permanent water customer, such annexation could cost "millions and millions," said MWD spokesman Jay Malinowski.
"I couldn't even estimate how much," he said. "Annexation would take a very long time."
Malinowski said MWD is cautious about considering new customers, particularly ones as large as Ventura.
"There is a real reluctance on the part of our board to annex even the smallest parcels right now, 10 to 15 acres being what we consider small," Malinowski said.
Ventura City Councilman Steve Bennett, who won his seat opposing a proposed pipeline to import state water from Castaic Lake, said he would object to such a move.
He pointed out that Ventura voters, in a 1992 ballot measure, rejected a plan to build the Castaic pipeline in favor of building a plant to desalinate sea water.
"If the pipeline (to connect the systems for emergency use) is not going to cost much money because of FEMA, then that's great," he said. "But if it turns out to be a considerable sum of money, then the voters have said, 'Let's spend it on desal.' "