The 1996 Ventura County Grand Jury "conducted a thorough investigation of groundwater contamination in the Oxnard groundwater basin. This area is within the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency (GMA) jurisdiction."
Investigating the nitrate contamination that forced closure of four Oxnard drinking-water wells, the grand jury report concluded that the contamination appeared to be caused from "septic tanks, fertilizers, agricultural irrigation runoff, leaking abandoned wells and Santa Clara River water during low flow conditions."
This latter topic referred to United Water Conservation District's diversion and spreading of river water, having high levels of contaminants, into Oxnard Plain basins.
The report also suggested that the three open SP Milling gravel pits "could present a possible source of contamination of the upper groundwater aquifer."
Oxnard has no control over its groundwater basin. That control is exercised by United, GMA, the regional board, state board and Ventura County, and all five agencies have neglected their duty to protect Oxnard and Port Hueneme drinking water.
Recently, United and GMA were joined by the Calleguas Municipal Water District in announcing that "the upper aquifer is full, the wells are flowing artesian again, and the seawater intrusion problem in the Oxnard Plain is under control."
Left out of the glowing presentation were groundwater contamination problems, with millions of dollars of potential costs to Oxnard's water users, should Oxnard have to build a drinking-water treatment facility.
In their zeal to provide an unlimited supply of agricultural water, the agencies have persistently ignored the fact that Oxnard's drinking-water aquifer is being exposed to contamination from multiple sources of pollution.
Following publication of the grand jury report, SP Milling applied to Ventura County for modifications of the conditional-use permits on the three gravel pits referred to in the report. For years, the county government failed to enforce SP Milling's existing permit requirements to excavate and backfill the three pits concurrently. Today, cost estimates to refill the pits run up to $30 million.
Estimated to be between 40 and 100 feet deep, the pits are gouged right into the recharge area for Oxnard's drinking-water supply. At least one pit contained high levels of fecal coliform and wastes, conveyed directly into the pits from an adjoining industrial park. Other contaminants, such as giardia, E. coli bacteria, and cryptosporidium oocysts are suspected to be found in the pits during the rainy season. However, since monitoring has not been previously required, no one knows for sure what is going into the groundwater supply from the pits.
The newest SP Milling proposal is to dig yet another pit where industrial buildings, sheds and a mixing plant exist. Next, the soil would be moved over to partially refill the three existing pits.
Since wherever a mixing plant has been located, soil contamination is likely to be found, Ventura County and the Regional Water Board must permit no further activity until a full environmental review is completed.
Concurrently, the drains, dumping contaminated surface water into the pits and then into groundwater, must be rerouted and monitored. A management plan of the entire groundwater recharge area along Vineyard Avenue must be developed, must produce results and must be acceptable to the city of Oxnard, state Water Resources Control Board and state Health Department.
If the unenforced SP Milling permit requirements for "concurrent excavation and backfilling of the pits" have a familiar ring, it is because those are the same type of requirements the county supervisors alleged would protect Oxnard's drinking water when Cal Mat, another gravel-pit mining company, was granted permits to excavate below groundwater level in December 1996. Lawsuits, filed by attorneys for Oxnard and the Environmental Defense Center, have so far prevented this additional threat to Oxnard's groundwater.
There can be no more excuses. From this sad and sorry situation of allowing contaminated surface water to pollute groundwater, a new program must begin that ensures an adequate supply of water for agriculture without jeopardizing the drinking water for future generations of Oxnard's residents.
It is time for citizens of Oxnard and the City Council to be heard. If Oxnard does not gain some control over the quality of its groundwater, it will have lost control over its destiny.