How Dry We Are
The retail nursery across the street from the farm has been busier than an anthill all summer with customers eagerly filling up their hatchbacks with paradoxically thirsty foliage one would not assume would be fit for planting during times of water scarcity. I feel like a fat boy obligated to diet on thyme while my schoolmates gorge themselves on ferns, petunias and alyssum. Farming during the drought is like waking up every day with a broken hand. You can never forget you are obligated to do less.
People around the Ojai Valley are cutting down a lot of shallow-rooted trees that aren’t making it through this drought. Landscapes that depended on irrigation are dying back, some abandoned, like many acres of withered oranges, which are not worth watering for 12 months straight. The “view-shed” orchards, which consume nearly 50% of the water contained in Lake Casitas, have never been a more debatable landscape amenity.
We are running out of water and options, particularly in the shadow of the great El Niño no-show of 2015–16.
We are at Stage 3 in the drought, with water use reductions mandated at 30%. Even with the rate of consumption reduced, water authorities warn that Lake Casitas could only have five years of water left in it.
But everything may not be lost. In a public meeting this summer on water resources, prices and conservation, convened by the Ventura River Water District, General Manager Bert Rapp talked of the option of local agencies to tap into the regional plumbing system that ties into the California State Water Project and Colorado River Aqueduct systems with a pipeline cost of about $20 million. Regional water districts, led by Casitas Municipal Water District, have long been able to obtain water from the north, according to Russ Baggerly, a Casitas District director, but it’s been too expensive to build the $200 million pipeline from Castaic Lake.
Having the Feather River pour out of your kitchen faucet in Oak View would require a lot of financial effort and the willingness of the beneficiaries to pay for it. State water would be costly, but not nearly as dear as observing real estate values evaporate like the dew on your windshield, followed by local business profitability, school district enrollments and every aspect of culture that will cascade down from there because our homes have no water.
It seems that so little time passed between being warned that “Water Is The New Oil” and having to actually confront severe shortages. But the warning really goes back at least as far as Marc Reisner’s best-seller, Cadillac Desert (Viking, 1986).
The California state water is delivered to Oxnard, which is served in part by the Calleguas Municipal Water District, a water wholesaler that serves most of the eastern part of Ventura County. The pipeline to salvation begins somewhere on the edge of the City of Ventura in Saticoy, where a large water service line could be connected by a seven-mile extension to the eastern boundary of Calleguas. From Ventura, water destined for Ojai would have to be pumped and treated, then sent back up the hill to Casitas’ storage facilities.
Water purification and management systems are designed to fill from the lake down, and if authorities could eliminate the evaporation factor on the lake they would. A system of large holding tanks filling continually with potable, treated water are installed across the Ojai Valley, all the way to The Summit. It would not be very feasible for the proposed state water to go through the Marion Walker Pressure Treatment Plant, which cleans up the Casitas MWD water beyond state-required levels.
At the Oak View water meeting hosted by VRWD, I imagine one should not have been surprised that a significant portion of the audience stood to leave when Renee Roth of the Ojai Valley Green Coalition began to speak about conservation measures.
Perhaps most headed for the exit because General Manager Rapp had just congratulated everyone for their stellar conservation achievements: conserving 33% last year when the suggested target was 25%. At least for some.
Local water authorities acknowledged that a large minority of water customers are content to keep guzzling from the common pipe while the responsible majority has complied. The guzzlers will pay handsomely for their selfishness in the future, as rates rise significantly for excessive use.
I pretended the Stage Three drought regime began two years ago, when it should have, because we have been talking about how low Lake Casitas is for longer than that. I abandoned three acres set apart from the main farm and rewrote my business plan to be less adventurous in the organic shipping trade, which had become less profitable in any case with the advent of large domestic organic farms and the continued growth in capably produced and packaged organic produce from Mexico.
I irrigate from a well that has dropped by 50% since the drought took hold in earnest in 2013. The possible flow of water from Northern California in two or three years will not affect my ability to grow food because the farm is in the jurisdiction of VRWD, which does not provide water for agricultural use. The VRWD obtains backup water from the Casitas District, so the advent of water from Sacramento will relieve some pressure, but it may turn out that local water pumped out of the ground may be cheaper than water pumped uphill from the Calleguas District.
If the Pit River eventually waters the tangerines on Grand Avenue, we can pause to applaud the ingenuity of humankind because such is a huge engineering miracle even if a modest minority think it’s a crime. The Pit crosses the Cascade Range and its headwaters near Goose Lake are 700 miles away.
We may end up drinking Oregon. And as we pause to marvel at our power to do so, we need to also be mindful that the limitations imposed by the drought made us think responsibly, at least for a brief time, about the benefit of limiting our demands on a finite resource.
When, and if, the Sacramento River flows into Western Ventura County, what we have here now will be saved, but with that salvation arrives permission to create even greater demand on our water system. The only reason why state water is an option now is because the past winter has provided a surplus. When we all go dry again, soon enough, and the Sacramento is not available, there will be even more of us who will be put at risk.