Ventura Water’s New Director

Last year I wrote about how Lake Casitas was at its lowest level ever, at just 35% of capacity. (You can read that here.) Then we got good rain. Nearly six inches in a single day in Ventura and my roof began to leak and I was actually kind of OK with it because it had been so dry for so long. The trouble was, despite the deluge, it was quick and fierce and it did nothing to depress long-term demand in the region. Quite the opposite, it would turn out. Whereas the drought that persisted through 2015 had elicited frank, difficult discussions about how we allocate water and what we want our community to look like in the future, the drought doesn’t come up much anymore. Construction continues and lawns are lush. This despite the fact that Ventura County never really came out of a drought, according to USGS’ Drought Monitor project. The El Nino raindrops lulled us to sleep, it seems. And now Lake Casitas is back down in the 36 percentile, nearly as low as its lowest low ever, just one year later. Mandatory water cut-backs remain in place, though many of us seem to not know the difference anymore.

Some interesting water developments over this year.

  • Shana Epstein, general manager for Ventura Water, resigned. This was made public at a March 22, 2017, meeting convened by District 1 Supervisor Steve Bennett. Epstein, who kept a Beverly Hills street sign with her name on it in her Ventura office left for–Beverly Hills. (Epstein never actually lived in Ventura, for what it’s worth.)
  • Meanwhile it was announced around the same time that the City of Ventura, for the first time in its history, would begin work on a permanent connection to the State Water Project via Calleguas Water District. In return, Calleguas would be able to “bank” water in Ventura’s aquifers and in Lake Casitas in case they ever run out. For it’s part, the City of Ventura will take less water from Casitas, in hopes that the lake might recover faster.
  • And Lake Casitas took over control of water delivery for the City of Ojai–at a tune of $34.4 million dollars. This was based on a feasibility study from 2011! I wonder what the authors of that study would think about the price tag and how that might affect feasibility? Or persistent, historic drought?

All of this was made public in the same week or so last March. A lot to digest. I don’t mean to disparage any of the people who work for the agencies above. I like Shana Epstein, thought she did a really good job here, and wish her the best. What concerns me is the lack of historical knowledge and vision within the system. For example, the interim general manager squeezed through approval for a 200-unit housing development by citing two-year rain averages. If he had looked out three, five, or ten years, according the VC Star, the project might not have been deemed sustainable. And now he’s gone! On Sept. 5, 2017, the City of Ventura announced that Kevin Brown, a Naval Engineer from Washington, D.C., will be at the helm.

There is now surface water running at the mouth of the Ventura River. That’s good news. But what about 50 years from now? What does it all look like then and does that vision reflect the values of our community? To that end, I wish Mr. Brown, and us, luck.



On Connecting to State Water …

I have a new piece out in the V.C. Reporter about Ventura County and proposed plans to connect to state water. This is a big deal. All prehistoric Chumash settlements in the region correspond with annual water flow. Junipero Serra consecrated his ninth and final mission here on Easter Sunday, 1782, and then the mission went about building a 7.5-mile aqueduct to secure water from San Antonio Creek and the Ventura River and send it out to fields and cisterns. Water has always been an essential, but local, issue.

Until now.

What are the possible benefits? Who is benefiting and at whose expense? What are the costs? Missed opportunities? 

I don’t answer or even ask all of these questions in the piece, but they are on my mind. Read more here.  

Water in Ventura

Lake Casitas at 35% capacity.

I’m excited and pleased to have a feature in the winter issue of Craftsmanship Quarterly about water in Ventura. Read it here. It’s a great magazine and I look forward to future issues.

I couldn’t have done it with out the expert editing and support of Todd Oppenheimer. Duane L. Georgeson is probably the leading expert on the California State Water Project and was an immensely important influence and source and now a friend. Ben Pitterle of Santa Barbara Channelkeeper isn’t just knowledgeable on topics like local aquifers and tributaries, he’s also the kind of person to get in there and experience the mischief and mystery of these things (great stories). Mike Kiparsky of the U.C. Berkeley Wheeler Institute is the leading expert on the critical nexus of ecology and law when it comes to the State Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). He’s also one of those rare experts who is generous with his time and wisdom. Finally, none of this would have happened with out the outsized generosity and openness of my cowboy friend Roger Haley. His family is heading into its second century on this land and it’s a proud legacy of stewardship and tradition and they will do well.

Water is a workhorse of a word. We perhaps demand too much of it. When I began on the project, an affable and stylish man of about 50 asked me what I was working on. “Water in Ventura,” I said.

“Oh, you mean all the brain cancer from it? Good luck with that. I only drink the bottled stuff myself.”

When it abounds, we scrutinize its quality. When it’s scarce, we scrutinize each other. When it falls from the sky it’s rain. When it falls from a cold sky it’s sleet or snow or hail. Where it flows fresh we call it a river or creek or stream or tributary. As that drys and cracks we call it mud. To the water manager it’s a commodity and public relations risk (keep it cheap). To the consumer its mostly an afterthought (ranked slightly before cable television). To some it’s sacred. There is no life without it, which is everywhere and nowhere at once.

(I almost wish the title of the piece had been ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Water.’)

Here in Ventura we have an opportunity to see it for what it is, because we are so close to our water. We are bound by two rivers, the Ventura and the Santa Clara, and an ocean, the Pacific. On that fourth dimension there are mountains–and creeks and rivers and meadows–and that is our rain catcher-maker. Unlike Santa Barbara, to the north, and Los Angeles, to the south, all our water is local. As Shana Epstein, manager at Ventura Water, told me, “They pray for snow in the Sierra Nevada. We pray for rain in the Los Padres.”

But how many people in Los Angeles actually pray for snow in the Sierra or Rockies?

And in this time of perceived crisis, we are deliberating about our water in Ventura. It’s transmogrifying from that category of cheap commodity to something more essential. Our priorities are reflecting the preciousness of this thing we call water, which really is our essence. And we are praying for rain.

How It Started & Ended (& Continues)

Years ago I had the opportunity trek through Baja with Donnie Albright, who has been a favorite person of mine: thick glasses, quick smiles, lots of stories about the sorts of things that capture my imagination–geography, geology, local Indians, Baja, the Sierra Nevada, impossible treks and distances … Donnie’s been approached by several publishers to write books about Baja, a place he’s been traveling to since the late 1940s (he declines, he says, because he wouldn’t want to keep them updated). He led tours there on behalf of the San Diego Natural History Museum.

So I went.

But I didn’t just go for Baja and to profit from Donnie’s hard-earned experience there. I had ulterior motives, as they say.

We had, my brother and cousins and I, grown up with a vague sense of a grim story. The name Bays Locker was the story: he had died. Donnie, as a teenager, had recovered the body. Bays was revered–by my father and uncle and by my grandfather, who had been Scout Master of Troop 36 in Pacific Beach, Calif., and then district commissioner of Boy Scouts for the region. My uncle and grandfather attended Bays’ funeral. My father fought to go, but was deemed too young at 12 years old. I wanted to hear from Donnie what really happened.

Me, Uncle Bob, and Donnie eating lunch in a converted house in downtown Santa Rosalia. Photo Dennis Coates

Over the course of our trip down the peninsula the story unfolded like the Arabian Nights, around campfires and desert wilderness. When we got back to the United States at the end of the week, I immediately wrote down what Donnie had told me: about how he and Bays and two other boys were hell-bent on first ascents and had ventured up the rugged Black Divided of the Sierra Nevada in July of 1952 to get their share. Bays fell from a rock. Died. Three boys, ages 13, 15, and 17, were left to pick up the pieces.

But the story, like any story I suppose, got complicated quickly. Strange coincidences. I had 25,000 words and no real theme! Years passed. New characters emerged. Others passed away. I chipped at it, spending time in libraries and archives and in the Sierras and on the phone … Spending time in my head trying to imagine that world: Post-war San Diego, a city growing at a breakneck pace in a time obsessed with progress: freeways, rockets to the moon, Mt. Everest, the “memex” machine, and a Baby Boom.

It’s finally done and due in June. I only hope I have done the story justice.