Ojai Sustains Itself on Rainfall
By Emily Thacher
It is difficult to describe all the aspects that set Ojai apart from other places in Southern California. One feature unique to our Valley is that it does not import water as most towns and cities in the region do. Thus far, Ojai has sustained itself with the water that presents itself in the form of rain. It may sound odd to say so, as it only rains a few times a year, but indeed, with the exception of the imported bottles such as Evian and Arrowhead, all of Ojai’s water comes from local rain.
I recently had the opportunity to view maps overlaid with diagrams of the pipelines that some of the local water companies use to convey water from one end of the Valley to the other. There is a whole heck of a lot of unseen water moving around underground, only appearing when an orchard gets irrigated, a hose is opened, or a toilet gets flushed. Water sustains this Valley; both urban and agricultural areas rely on it. We should all be aware of where our water comes from and take responsibility to ensure there will be enough during dry spells.
Since the very early days of California settlement, Ojai has been known as a water source. In the late 1700s, the missionaries in Ventura built a stone aqueduct from San Antonio Creek to the mission in Ventura. The Buenaventura Mission and subsequent city of Ventura continue to rely on the Ojai Valley watershed; they currently have wells in the Ventura River and use water from Lake Casitas. The Valley has continually been an exporter of this precious liquid resource to our coastal neighbor.
For the past 130 years Ojai residents have devised various methods of storing rainwater in the Valley. With settlement of the Ojai Valley in the late 1800s, multiple water companies were formed. These companies harnessed water from streams and artesian wells and siphoned it around Ojai in canals and pipelines. Wells were arduously dug by hand and lined with rock, and water was pumped up with diesel engines. The precious molecules of hydrogen and oxygen were stored in everything from reservoirs to barrels. Water was such a valuable commodity during Ojai’s early days that it was sometimes stolen right out of the reservoirs at night.
The general consensus of those involved with water sales and crop irrigation at the time was that “too much water was lost during the rainy season.” Advances in technology during the 1930s allowed for the drilling of deeper wells, which helped ease the lack of water but soon led to groundwater depletion. “People today don’t know what water shortages are,” says my grandfather, Elmer Friend. “The Valley was practically pumped dry” during the droughts of the 1940s, in which Ojai’s own groundwater basin was severely depleted.
During that period there was a great movement to improve Ojai’s water storage. In 1944 money was approved to build a dam on Matilija Creek, and the Matilija Dam was completed in 1948. Not until the long drought ended with winter rains in 1951 did the reservoir behind the dam fill. A pipeline from the base of the dam to the East End of Ojai could move water by gravity flow at a very low cost. Large basins were built in the East End along the northern edge of San Antonio Creek to fill and allow for groundwater recharge, replenishing the aquifer that had been drawn down by the intense use of wells. (These recharge basins were later used as flood control retention basins, eventually filled with silt, and have since been abandoned). The famous floods of 1969 again filled the Matilija reservoir, but this time with silt and debris, reducing the storage capacity. The dam currently holds 500 acre-feet of water and is slated for removal within the next decade.
The early ’50s brought a new movement to improve the water supply. Locals wanted to take responsibility for their own water supply, rather than to rely on large and costly state water projects. By a 31-1 margin, voters approved the building of a dam on Coyote Creek. In 1956 the project of building Casitas Dam and the diversion channel from the Ventura River began. Lake Casitas now supplies 21,000 acre-feet per year to its customers over an area extending from La Conchita on the coast to the eastern reaches of Upper Ojai. Casitas Municipal Water District (CMWD) is the only company with rights to Lake Casitas water; other local water companies rely on wells or purchasing water from CMWD.
Conversations I’ve had with locals suggest that a lot of Ojai residents believe their water solely comes from Casitas Lake, the only large visible water source. In fact, most homes in the Valley acquire water from one of the multitude of local water companies. CMWD and Southern California Water Co. are the main suppliers, with Meiners Oaks County Water District and County of Ventura Water supplying Meiners Oaks and Oak View respectively. Multiple smaller water companies also exist. A majority of the Valley’s water companies acquire water from wells and use Lake Casitas/CMWD as a backup supply. In addition, a small number of people and farms have riparian rights, allowing them to take water directly from streams and springs.
Many wells in the Valley are used for both agricultural and domestic water. As much as 6,000 acre-feet of water per year (enough for 12,000 homes or 6,000 acres of citrus) is pumped by wells from Ojai’s groundwater basin in the East End. Southern California Water Co., which supplies water to Ojai’s downtown area obtains most of its water from wells, and purchases the remainder from CMWD during dry spells. When wells dry down in the late summer, most well operators, farmers or water companies, have a backup source with one of the many local water companies that have access to reservoirs or riparian water rights. In the early 1990s the Ojai Basin Groundwater Management Agency (OBGMA) was formed to preserve and protect the groundwater in order to maintain long-term supply for users within the basin. Well owners voluntarily report usage to the OBGMA and the organization keeps tabs on usage, aquifer supply, and water quality.
Water use in the Valley increases with every additional home, business, and planted acre. In addition to direct rainfall, irrigated agricultural lands must obtain about one acre-foot of water per acre per year. (Most agricultural crops in the area need about two acre-feet per acre per year and Ojai generally receives half this directly from rainfall.) A single-family home uses approximately half an acre-foot per year. If four homes are built per acre as in a low-density subdivision, they will use roughly the same amount of water as an acre of citrus. Open space such as forest and agricultural land benefit underground water storage more than urban areas as they allow for more percolation of water into aquifers during the rainy season.
It’s important to know where your water comes from and what will happen during a drought. Although there is much talk about water being the limiting resource in dry Southern California, we rarely hear of construction being halted due to lack of water. Yet this is happening here in Ojai: CMWD currently has a moratorium on new customers. The levels of Lake Casitas as well as our aquifer are low. Well-users are relying heavily on the lake as a backup supply. Some say we are heading into a 10-year drought. If rains don’t come this winter, or next, the groundwater and lake levels will continue to drop and we will be forced to conserve. We may even need to begin to import water, not just Evian or Perrier for drinking but Colorado River water for bathing and cooking. CMWD holds the right to tap into the state water project, and will do so if forced, but at a cost we would all have to bear.
Thanks to those who devised our water infrastructure and have preserved the open spaces in and around our Valley, we have a versatile water system with its own rivers, water storage facilities, and groundwater aquifer, thus far sustaining our water consumption. Hopefully, with the resources at hand we can continue to effectively serve our water needs for the next 100 years without being forced to import politically charged water from afar.
Contact your local water company for more information on your water supply and methods of water conservation.
Thanks to John Johnson of CMWD and Harry Bodell of OBGMA for reviewing this article.