Among the many distinctions that set Ventura apart is this undervalued one: we are the largest jurisdiction in Southern California that doesn’t import any water. None. At a time when the State government has just announced a plan to spend $23 billion on a massive pipeline “fix” to the intractable Sacramento River delta which supplies water to both the Central Valley and much of Southern California, our self-sufficiency is a remarkable fact.
Obviously it is not because we are on the coast — desalination remains too costly an option and considering the huge energy costs, may remain so indefinitely. No, Ventura is bracketed by two rivers and since the Mission fathers built their first aqueduct more than two centuries ago, we’ve managed to live within our means when it comes to relying on local water.
That remains true today, in large part due to the thriftiness of residential and business users. As a community, we’ve never exceeded the peak demand set back in the mid-Seventies, despite a more than 30% increase in population. Conservation, spurred by rates that penalize high use, has kept demand within the ability of Ventura Water to meet it.
We simply can’t take that for granted. It’s said that while two-thirds of the world is covered in water, less than 2% of it is drinkable. Clean freshwater is not just a precious resource, it is a fragile one. Many experts predict a global water crunch that will rival our energy challenges. Locally, we too face an increasing squeeze on our existing water supply.
To hold their own in the face of global competition for citrus, local farmers are shifting from oranges and lemons to crops that take more water like berries and tomatoes. Understandable choice for the individual farmer, but the cumulative impact is straining underground aquifers. Federal and State environmental regulations are forcing hard and expensive choices to protect endangered fish and control pollution now literally measured down to “parts per million” for impurities. And while our community continues to maintain an exemplary record of conserving water, short of big changes in landscaping, it is hard to see how we’d absorb a big drop in supply triggered by some future water contamination problem, lawsuit or regulatory ruling.
This is hardly a new issue. Ventura was immersed in a big water controversy twenty years ago that actually ended up at the ballot box with voters choosing between importing state water or shifting to desalination. Our record of conservation (and relatively modest new growth over the past two decades) has kept that choice at bay. No one can say what the next twenty years will hold.
What we do know is that water will get more expensive, here and elsewhere. This is not just a case of supply and demand. Ironically, the less we use, the more it costs. This always (understandably) bugs residents who feel like they are getting hosed. But the pipes, pumps and treatment facilities of a water system cost what they cost almost no matter how much water is actually being pumped through the system. While Ventura Water bases its bills mostly on the amount of water used by customers, 75% of the cost goes to the construction and maintenance of the massive water infrastructure we’ve built over decades and need to constantly repair and replace.
So, do we have enough water? The answer is, “Yes, but . . . “ Yes, but we can’t take it for granted. Yes, but it will get more costly. Yes, but we need to find imaginative new avenues for conservation. Yes, but we must face some very serious economic and political choices in our region about how we use water. Yes, but we better be prepared if things change.
The good news is we aren’t relying on a $23 billion dollar big fix to ensure Ventura’s future. The challenges we face locally are significant, but they are manageable. We just can’t assume that we will have plenty of (relatively) cheap water indefinitely. Not in a dry climate in a warming world. We can be proud that we don’t import water from anywhere else. Keeping that distinction will be a challenge we can’t duck.