Ventura County water officials are proposing a strict 25-year plan to ration the quantity of water that growers and cities pump from underground pools of water deep below the Oxnard Plain.
Officials are also considering an emergency ordinance to at least temporarily ban the drilling of new
wells on the plain, the agriculturally rich expanse stretching from the beaches of Oxnard through the valleys of Camarillo.
The initial reaction from growers this week is that the water rationing proposals will be an economic hardship, but that they are necessary for the long-range preservation of farm areas.
The rationing plan, which requires users to cut consumption 5% by 1995 and 25% by 2015, comes with penalties for exceeding water allotments. But some area growers, faced with decisions based on economics, may opt to keep on pumping and pay the fines.
The proposed fines would range from $50 to $200 for every acre-foot of water used by growers in excess of their regular allotments.
"We need a certain quantity of water to grow our crops, and without that, our crops will suffer," said David Pommer, ranch manager at the 900-acre Utt Development citrus ranch in Oxnard. His operation, an old-style ranch that irrigates with furrows, could save water by converting to mini-sprinklers, he said. But that can be expensive, at an estimated cost of $1,200 per acre.
"If you're planning on growing for 30 years, it might pay for itself," Pommer said. "But we're in an area that will be real estate in 20 years."
The proposed ordinances, to be considered at a public meeting on Jan. 26, come after preliminary results in December showed a second finding of seawater intrusion into the lower aquifer system. That system, and the deep Fox Canyon Aquifer in particular, was previously believed to be uncontaminated despite decades of overdrafting, when growers pumped more water out than was replenished through rainfall.
Since the 1920s, seawater has crept into shallow aquifers, making parts of them unsuitable for grower or municipal use. Users consequently drilled deeper wells, tapping the lower system and contributing to the overdraft and the seawater intrusion.
For the first time, tests in November showed strong evidence of seawater encroachment in the lower system. The county is still waiting for final test results from the U.S. Geological Survey, which drilled the wells and performed the tests.
The Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency, the public body that regulates ground water usage on the Oxnard Plain, plans a public hearing on the pumping restriction ordinance at the Jan. 26 meeting to solicit comment from users.
But the need for the proposed emergency ordinance to prohibit drilling new wells may be temporarily relieved, said Lynn Maulhardt, president of United Water Conservation District and chairman of the Groundwater Mangement Agency. The emergency ordinance was thought necessary when developers of a golf course in western Camarillo asked permission to drill two wells that would draw 500 acre feet per year.
"The immediate question was whether a golf course is a good use of ground water in an overdrafted basin," Maulhardt said. He proposed the emergency ban to give board members time to study the issue in depth, he said. But developer Spanish Hills, has verbally withdrawn its request and will instead seek water from the city of Camarillo, which plans to annex the property, said John Turner, hydrologist with the county's Water Resourses Department.
However, other board members may still want the ban in place to avert future requests before the board can decide on a permanent course of action, Maulhardt said.
The proposed pumping restriction ordinance is designed to reach safe yield by 2025, that point at which the water draining into aquifers is equal to or more than the quantity being extracted.
It will set allocations and reduction requirements by averaging five-year water-use records, Turner said. Using information from the meters, which are required on all large-quantity pumps, users must report their water use twice a year to United Water District. The district has staff that monitors the meters and usage reports, checking them against the acreage farmed and crops grown to ensure the numbers correspond appropriately, Maulhardt said.
After earlier drafts of the ordinance were distributed, some growers complained that those who are now the most conscientious with water use would be the hardest hit. A provision was added to assign credits for growers who are already using water at top efficiency.
Because there are only about 800 pumpers, most of whom are large operators including both growers and municipalities such as Oxnard, Ventura, Port Hueneme and Camarillo, cheating in reporting should not be a serious problem, Maulhardt said.