Judge's Ruling Stalls Water Storage Plan

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A plan to store millions of gallons of water underground near Moorpark was stalled Thursday when a Superior Court judge ruled that Calleguas Municipal Water District officials broke state environmental laws in pushing the project through without public comment.

Judge Barbara A. Lane ruled that if the water district wants to continue with the project to drill five wells and inject water into the Fox Canyon Aquifer it must conduct a new environmental review and hold a public hearing that is properly advertised.

Lane also blocked the water district's attempt to condemn two acres of a citrus ranch near Moorpark for the project. And she ordered the water district to pay the legal fees and court costs of the landowners who fought the project, Joseph and Mary Viramontez.

The district, which serves more than 500,000 customers countywide, wants to store water in the giant subterranean water basin for use during drought or when supplies are cut off by natural disaster. Now, the district receives all its water from Northern California by way of a state aqueduct.

The 27-page decision released late Thursday focuses on two newspaper notices placed by the water district in 1993. Lane ruled that because the "nondescript" advertisements failed to describe the project's specific location and potential effects they did not constitute the "meaningful public notice" required by law.

"The water district therefore abused its discretion," Lane wrote.

Joseph Viramontez said he was pleased with the decision, including the passages rebuking the water district.

"I think they were pretty abusive in everything that they did," Viramontez said.

Calleguas General Manager Donald R. Kendall denied that the district had tried to prevent public comment on the project.

"I speak about this project to local Rotary Clubs. Everybody knows about this project," Kendall said. "We've got tremendous public support."

Kendall said the district will very likely begin a new environmental review and try again to take the Viramontez land by declaring it essential for the public good.

He said the ruling will delay the project for at least six months.

Representatives of the water district argued at a hearing last month that they followed environmental review laws. They said the project is necessary to provide a reliable drinking water supply.

But Lane wrote that the general public, not just water board members and district engineers, should have a chance to fully consider the issues surrounding the project before it goes forward.

"Diminishing water resources, groundwater use and water purity issues are 'hot' public issues," Lane wrote. "The public should have a say in the sources of Ventura County's water supplies."

The five-well project at issue in this case is the first stage of a 30-well, $20-million project. A hearing on a draft environmental impact report for the larger project is scheduled for Wednesday.

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