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City Awaits Ruling on Plan to Reclaim Waste Water

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After almost 20 years of squabbling with local water agencies, environmental groups and downstream farmers, this city is on the verge of receiving state approval to recapture most of the treated waste water it deposits in Conejo Creek and sell it for profit.

The State Water Resources Control Board is expected to issue a final ruling Thursday allowing Thousand Oaks to divert up to 10,000 acre-feet of water from the creek every year.

Thousand Oaks plans to sell the water to the Calleguas Municipal Water District, which in turn would distribute it to the Pleasant Valley and Camrosa water districts.

Those districts would then be able to sell the water to Camarillo-area farmers for irrigation and to other water users, such as landscapers.

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A subcommittee of the state control board has issued a preliminary ruling recommending that Thousand Oaks be allowed to divert the water, with a series of conditions to protect the creek environment.

As a result, the city stands to gain $500,000 a year by selling treated waste water and runoff that has been trickling into the Pacific Ocean.

Dubbed the Conejo Creek Diversion Project, it would be the first such undertaking in Ventura County and one of the few in California in which a government agency puts treated waste water in a creek and later removes it downstream, experts say.

“It’s the leading case in the state,” said Elizabeth Johnson, the Sacramento water-rights attorney representing Thousand Oaks. “I can’t think of any other agency doing anything like this.”

Not everyone is happy with the diversion plan, however. Biologists for the state Department of Fish and Game are worried that a drop in the creek’s water levels could severely disrupt the habitats of such species as the Southwestern pond turtle and the two-striped garter snake.

“We have a real concern for the resources out there,” said Morgan Wehtje, the state Fish and Game Department’s wildlife biologist for Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. “They are valuable, and dwindling in Ventura County. It’s just not something you find in any creek.”

Though Thousand Oaks is willing to take steps to protect wildlife, city officials argue that if it were not for the city’s incorporation and growth, Conejo Creek would be a dry wash with little animal life.

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Most of the creek water comes from the city’s sewer plant and runoff from residents’ lawns, so it should be regarded as city property, argues Public Works Director Don Nelson. Along with City Manager Grant Brimhall, Nelson has been shepherding the project for nearly two decades.

“The creek itself was dry before Thousand Oaks was developed,” Nelson said. “That is why we feel we are entitled to ownership of that water. This is basically a water-rights issue, which is a property-rights issue.”

Further complicating matters, farmers along Conejo Creek believe they have rightful claims to the water, since it passes through their land.

For years, farmers fought the diversion plan, saying their livelihood was at stake because they sometimes pump water from the creek to sustain their crops, mostly in drought periods. They said they would be forced to find a new water source at a potentially high cost.

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Because farmers in other areas were using ground water for crops, Conejo Creek-area farmers argued that they would be at a competitive disadvantage--particularly since the city’s initial plan was to take the Conejo Creek water and pipe it all to the Pleasant Valley water district in the Oxnard Plain.

A coalition of about a dozen farmers sued Thousand Oaks and won a decision in Ventura County Superior Court in 1992, only to lose on appeal in 1994. But Thousand Oaks, the water agencies and the farmers have since reached a compromise, and the farmers are no longer opposed.

Under the deal, the farmers are guaranteed a water supply for 25 years from the Camrosa district, which would receive the majority of the diverted water and pay for roughly 60% of the project’s $9-million cost.

The water would be piped directly to the farmers, but they would have to pay for it--albeit at a flat rate they consider relatively reasonable.

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“The farmers could have gone out of business--it was a real possibility,” said Richard H. Hajas, general manager of the Camrosa Water District. “We worked out a deal, and no one is getting everything. But everyone, including the habitat in the stream, is getting something.”

Gerald Fitzgerald, who manages his family’s Fitzgerald Ranch, said there is still some grumbling among downstream farmers, but most have accepted the compromise with Thousand Oaks and Camrosa.

“For years, we vehemently fought against it because we thought our rights were being violated, and it got pretty expensive,” Fitzgerald said.

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“We always thought that since the water was going through our property--and causing quite a bit of erosion along the way--we were at the very least entitled to use some of it,” he added. “I think most people feel this deal is the best we’re going to get.”

In addition to the $500,000 a year Thousand Oaks is expected to receive from the diversion project--part of which would be used to help pay for a $71-million upgrade of the Hill Canyon Wastewater Treatment Plant--the city would reap another benefit as a result of the long-stalled deal.

Because businesses and farmers that were previously pumping ground water or using imported water would begin to use reclaimed water, the Calleguas Municipal Water District--the water wholesaler for 75% of the county’s water supply--could pipe in less water from the Sacramento Delta.

That means Calleguas would receive water conservation credits it could “cash in” during times of drought, which would, in effect, make the entire region better able to withstand a drought.

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Since Calleguas and Thousand Oaks have agreed to split the credits fifty-fifty, the city--which depends entirely on imported water--would be especially protected.

“If we ever had a drought, this would basically make Thousand Oaks drought-proof,” said Don Kendall, Calleguas’ general manager. “It’s huge.”

Preserving water was, in fact, the impetus for the diversion project.

In the 1970s, state water quality investigators criticized county authorities for what they considered drastic over-pumping of ground water resources in the Oxnard Plain. County officials were told to put together an alternate water plan or risk losing control over their jurisdiction.

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A countywide study in the early 1980s said that reusing the treated waste water from Thousand Oaks’ sewer plant would help relieve that situation and other regional water needs.

“We have an arid climate here, and tens of thousands of acre-feet of water being wasted,” said Nelson, the city public works director. “It makes a lot more sense than letting it go to the ocean.”

But Thousand Oaks has encountered numerous obstacles, including some opposition by state Fish & Game authorities that continues today.

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In response to concerns of state wildlife biologists, the subcommittee of the Water Resources Control Board that issued a draft decision in Thousand Oaks’ favor placed additional requirements on the city.

The most burdensome, according to Nelson, is that Thousand Oaks ensure that at least 6 cubic feet per second of water pass through the water diversion structure planned for just south of the Ventura Freeway. Thousand Oaks was initially proposing 2 cubic feet per second, or about 1,460 acre-feet a year.

The stiffer requirement, meant to ensure that turtles and other animals have safe passage, would reduce the city’s water yield by about 3,000 acre-feet a year, but the project remains economically feasible, Nelson said.

Thousand Oaks officials had proposed a series of mitigation measures of their own to protect wildlife, such as building ponds, relocating turtles and removing some of their predators. Those were left in the project, and Thousand Oaks plans to protest that only one of the sets of mitigation measures is needed.

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“We call this the double-dipping clause,” Nelson said. “We’ll do one, but not both.”

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Wehtje, the state wildlife biologist, believes that both sets of measures are not enough. Like many others involved in the diversion project, she plans to fly to Sacramento for this week’s Water Resources Control Board hearing.

“There are [species] in Conejo Creek that probably used to live elsewhere, but probably have to live in the creek area now, because that’s all that’s left,” she said. “This diversion is going to have an effect, a real definite effect.”

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