Settlement May Delay Water Rate Increases for Years

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Multimillion-dollar water projects that would have required steep rate hikes could be put off for years as a result of a settlement reached with more than 60 ranchers, companies and public agencies that pump water out of the Santa Paula Basin, city officials said Thursday.

The settlement ends a five-year stalemate among the city, the United Water Conservation District and an association of ranchers and businesses who who have wrestled over water rights to the basin.

And while the agreement gives the ranchers' association the lion's share of the water supply, it still secures a much-needed water source for the city to tap in drought years.

"The settlement is one more step towards a consistent, reliable water supply that will ensure that we can get through the next drought without hardships in our community," Public Works Director Ron Calkins said.

Filed in Ventura County Superior Court on Thursday, the settlement states that during the next seven years, no more than 30,500 acre-feet of water can be drawn from the basin each year.

An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to serve a family of four for a year.

Under the agreement, the city can tap 3,000 acre-feet of water annually. But during a drought, it can take twice as much. That water should supplement the city's other supplies, which include Lake Casitas and the Ventura River.

"When things are dry, we double our production," Calkins said. "And when things are good, we let it rest."

The agreement comes eight months after the city secured another significant water source. In July, Ventura agreed to spend $900,000 a year to buy 6,000 acre-feet of water from the Casitas Municipal Water District.

The arrangement provides a key source of revenue for Casitas to build a long-awaited water-treatment plant. In turn, it provides a source of clean water for the city.

Between the Casitas agreement and the Santa Paula Basin settlement, expensive water projects--such as a desalination plant and a pipeline across the city--become less necessary, officials said.

And that means rate hikes needed for the plant's estimated $33-million to $55-million construction could be postponed for years.

"We have dramatically reduced the future rate increases that were only a few years ago predicted," Councilman Steve Bennett said. "We have come up with a way to get a better water system through agreements not through big capital projects."

The lawsuit was filed in 1991--the last year of a six-year drought--after the city of Ventura began pumping increased amounts of water from its wells in the east end of the city, which draw from the Santa Paula Basin.

Ventura officials also proposed sinking new wells in the basin, which infuriated dozens of farmers and companies that depend on the basin, which stretches 12 miles from Kimball Road in east Ventura to the eastern edge of Santa Paula.

Fearing that Ventura would deplete the ground-water supply for that area, the United Water Conservation District filed suit.

The district regulates water pumping in much of the Oxnard Plain and up the Santa Clara River Valley through Piru.

A few months after filing the lawsuit, about 60 ranchers, corporations and public agencies--including the city of Santa Paula--joined in the lawsuit as the Santa Paula Basin Pumpers Assn.

The basin is the only source of water for the city of Santa Paula and numerous ranches.

Association Chairman Jack Dickenson said Thursday the settlement will protect the water rights of those individuals and businesses who have historically tapped into the basin.

"This agreement addresses the protection of a valuable resource that is relied upon by both urban and agricultural interests," Dickenson said in a prepared statement.

The settlement also calls for a committee to monitor the amount of water pumped from the basin and to analyze water quality.

Representatives of the city, United and the ranchers' association will serve on the committee.

A settlement between no less than 60 parties was cited as remarkable by city leaders and plaintiffs in the case. They said the agreement will hopefully create better relations between the basin's many users.

"Everybody in the region can benefit from better water relations," Bennett said. "We will all have a more reliable water system because we won't be using lawsuits to go after each others' water supply."

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