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City's Thirst Poses Threat to Waterway : Environment: The Ventura River serves urban water needs. But siphoning affects the life it supports.

A RIVER AT RISK. A battlefront in the war between man and nature. Second of two parts

March 21, 1994|JOANNA M. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

About six miles up the Ventura River Valley and just west of California 33 sits Foster Park, a river-side refuge where lovers court and swallows dart through the air.

Under a canopy of giant sycamores, eucalyptus and oaks, this 200 acres of nature offers something few other parks in Southern California can--a river.

But the Ventura River, with its brushy banks that give children a chance to trap a tadpole or listen to a symphony of chirping birds, also slakes a city's growing thirst.

And Foster Park is where the city of Ventura taps the river's flow most heavily.

Here, the city diverts water for up to 20,000 families a year, slowing the river and leaving it shallower, thereby warming it and essentially altering the life it supports.

The diversion can hardly be noticed from the park. An underground dam cuts 60 feet down to the river's bedrock and pipes water to the city's water treatment plant along upper Ventura Avenue. Four wells farther up the river siphon subsurface river water off to also be sent to the water treatment plant.

"It's our oldest and best water supply," said Ronald J. Calkins, director of public works for the city of Ventura.

The city has turned to the river first to fill as much of its annual water needs as possible, he said. After the river, the city looks to Lake Casitas, which also gets its water from the river and its tributaries. Lastly, Ventura goes to its deep water wells in the city's east end.

But now the city wants to increase its supply from the Ventura River. Although the city would have to prepare a complete environmental impact report before it could take more water, Calkins and other officials maintain they may have rights to claim all the water in the river during dry months.

And it's that claim--despite city assurances that environmental repercussions would be considered--that has state biologists concerned that the lower river may soon face one of its most serious threats yet.

Based on a convoluted series of water rights transfers over the last 120 years among the Santa Ana Water Co.; Ventura Water, Light and Power Co.; Southern California Edison and others, the city claims the right to 4,000 miners' inches per year from the river.

That's an antiquated term of measurement left over from the state's early mining days. It's the equivalent of about 54,000 acre-feet of water per year--or enough water to totally supply 108,000 families.

That is more than five times what the city now takes from the river and much more than the city needs, Calkins said.

But he said the city may have a more far-reaching right to the water. The city believes that it has so-called pueblo water rights granted more than 200 years ago by Spain. And he believes that the city could prove that, if necessary, by examining historical records in Spain.

"There is some question whether we have a pueblo right, which is the right to just about anything," Calkins said. "But if we have it, it's great stuff. A pueblo right is the granddaddy of them all."

A pueblo right, which California courts have already ruled can be claimed by the cities of Los Angeles and San Diego, dates from the days of the missions and entitles the cities to all the water they need from nearby rivers, including ground water.

Having a pueblo right--which could still be contested in court--would exempt the city from being forced to allow a minimum amount of water to flow down the river, as California Department of Fish and Game biologists have requested, Calkins said.

Ventura's population of 96,000 uses 16,000 acre-feet of water annually, with up to 10,000 acre-feet of that taken from the Ventura River. City-paid experts will soon begin studying the river to find out how much more water it can give up, and at what environmental cost, said Steve Wilson, the city's water superintendent.

After that study, the city will write a master plan to improve water works at Foster Park by altering the underground dam's intake, building a permanent dike to funnel the water into the dam and refurbishing the four subsurface wells. The city's pipelines also need to be replaced.

"We don't know yet how much water is available," Wilson said. "But we're trying to get the most we can of our water rights with the most minimal impact on the environment."

The city wants the extra water for two main reasons.

Wilson would like to ship more water to the city's east end, which is now supplied by poor-quality ground water from wells in east Ventura and Saticoy.

In addition to improving drinking water in the east, it would also allow the basins there to rest and refill. That would make more water available during times of drought.

But more importantly, Calkins said, the city may be able to delay for several years the very expensive proposition of building a plant to desalinate seawater if it can enhance its present water supply.

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