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Casitas' Claim for Dam Challenged

Environmentalists ask the state to check water district's assertion that it needs the structure.

August 19, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Worried that the $130-million demolition project could be delayed, environmentalists are challenging Casitas Municipal Water District's claims that tearing down the Matilija Dam near Ojai would reduce its water supply.

The group California Trout has asked the State Water Resources Control Board to determine the merit of Casitas' assertion that dismantling the 168-foot-high dam would adversely affect its ability to serve 200 of its more than 50,000 customers. Casitas contends that its customers have a right to a portion of the water stored behind the dam.

But in a recent letter to the state water board's chairman, Jim Edmondson, Southern California manager for California Trout, said Casitas' claim to such water rights was erroneous.

"We surmise that [Casitas] is raising these claims as a negotiation tactic and/or leverage to delay the dam removal and thwart the whole river restoration project, or to gain entitlement to water it does not have," he wrote.

Casitas has several options after the dam comes down, Edmondson said, including seeking state approval to add a location other than the dam site to divert Ventura River flows, applying for new water rights or seeking other sources.

The Ventura County Watershed Protection District, which owns the 56-year-old structure, plans to work with the Army Corps of Engineers to remove the aging dam to restore the river's ecosystem, replenish sand-starved beaches and enhance a breeding area for the threatened steelhead trout.

Casitas Municipal Water District operates the dam and a downstream water system for the county under a 50-year agreement that expires Jan. 1, 2009. Casitas is concerned that the county has not made clear how it intends to supply water to some of its customers -- including two small water companies and several agricultural users -- once the dam is removed.

"This is not a contract ploy," said General Manager John Johnson. "If you take the dam down, how do you capture the water? There is no other storage device."

Under a state water license granted to the county and transferred to Casitas in 1959, it can store up to 2,470 acre-feet of water behind the dam and withdraw up to 4,570 acre-feet per year. An acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons, or enough water to supply two typical homes for a year.

But Edmondson said the Casitas argument was flawed because the dam's capacity has been significantly diminished. Over the years, silt has clogged the dam and now it can hold only about 500 acre-feet of water, yet Casitas continues to supply its customers, he said. If the dam remains, it will completely fill with silt within 20 years.

"The general manager's statements in the past seem to play fast and loose with the facts," Edmondson said. "We want factual, credible answers from the state water board."

The county has pledged to restore the water Casitas would lose when the dam is gone, said Jeff Pratt, director of the Watershed Protection District. The replacement water could come from untapped groundwater under county control, paying for portions of the city of Ventura's unused water and general conservation measures.

But Pratt added that "nobody has said we would guarantee [Casitas] water forever."

Liz Kanter, spokeswoman for the state water board, said the agency would review California Trout's concerns and respond in a few weeks.

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