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7 Vying for 3 Seats on Water Board

The issue of Matilija Dam's demolition lures candidates to the usually low-key race.

September 04, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

An Ojai Valley water district's aggressive questioning of plans to tear down silt-filled Matilija Dam has prompted a slate of candidates to try to replace water board members up for reelection this fall.

Seven candidates are vying for the three Casitas Municipal Water District seats on the Nov. 2 ballot, an indication of the interest in what traditionally has been a low-key competition.

With most of the board's five members facing challengers, the election could bring a new majority.

Supporters of Matilija Dam's demolition say they want a new majority, alleging that current members are imperiling the $110-million project by using scare tactics about water loss with Ojai Valley customers.

In recent months, the district has sent its customers newsletters warning of potential water shortages should the dam come down, urging ratepayers to voice concerns to federal and county officials spearheading the demolition effort.

"The majority could change, and it's time," said Russ Baggerly, a longtime Ojai environmentalist who is challenging 19-year incumbent James Coultas. "When people find out I am running they say 'Thank God, I'm so tired of hearing Casitas complain in those glossy newsletters.' "

Board members say they are just doing their job -- trying to secure future water supplies while protecting the district's more than 50,000 customers from spiraling rates. Coultas dismissed as political posturing claims that Casitas has been too combative.

"Most of the criticism has come from single-issue organizations that have a vested interest in seeing the dam come down," said Coultas, a valley rancher. "My job is to represent the water users of my district, and that's what I'm doing."

Two other board members also face opponents.

Two-term incumbent Jim Word is challenged by David Norrdin of Ventura, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ventura City Council in 2001, and Dan Nelson, an English teacher at Ventura High School.

The third incumbent, Peter Kaiser, is opposed by Jeff Ketelsen, a substitute teacher who lost a county supervisorial bid in the March primary. All of the contested seats are for areas in Ventura or the Ojai Valley.

Casitas' executive staff and board have frequently butted heads with environmentalists in recent years. The group California Trout, along with the Environmental Defense Center, sued the district in 1997, alleging that its Robles Diversion Dam was blocking the endangered steelhead trout's migration upstream.

After years of wrangling, the district agreed in 2003 to build a fish passageway, a project still under construction. But critics say the district's foot-dragging caused the loss of a $750,000 state grant that would have helped offset the $9-million cost of the project.

As the fish ladder dispute was coming to a close, momentum to take down the 56-year-old Matilija Dam began to build. Federal, state and county officials chipped in $4.4 million to begin the process.

Project managers say its removal would help the steelhead flourish and replenish sand-starved beaches in Ventura.

Critics allege the project's full funding, not yet secured, could be threatened if Casitas is able to whip up public fears that the loss of the dam could threaten Ojai Valley's water supply.

Coultas and Word say they are not opposed to the project, nor is the board. But both men said they were looking for an agreement that any water lost as a result of the Matilija Dam demolition would be replaced by another source -- and not at the district's expense.

"If the federal government would be willing to offset the costs of doing that, we'd be happy," Coultas said. "We don't think our customers should pay for the Matilija Dam project through their water bills for the next 50 years."

Baggerly and others say completed environmental studies show that the potential for water loss has been exaggerated. Additional studies as the project moves forward should answer all of Casitas' concerns, he said.

"The Casitas administration is telling the board the sky is falling, and the board believes it," he said. "But it's not true, and it's disingenuous to put out press releases saying so."

Candidate Nelson said that he was also concerned about what he saw as an overly secretive governing process. Too much of the board's work is done behind closed doors, he said.

"I'd like to open up the process more to the public," he said. "I've got some questions about management and how the public is being served."

Several critics suggested that district General Manager John Johnson was combative and too influential over board decisions. Coultas defended Johnson's 15-year tenure.

"I think he's doing a fine job," he said.

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