County reports fourth dry year this decade
By Daryl Kelley
As the rainfall season winds down, authorities report that the Ojai Valley has experienced another year of sub-par precipitation, lowering the Lake Casitas reservoir, dropping groundwater levels and forcing farmers to water crops even during the wettest months.
As of Thursday, the county Watershed Protection District reported local rainfall totals since Oct. 1 at between 54 percent and 62 percent of normal as the Ojai Valley had its fourth extremely dry year in the last decade.
For example, only 11.55 inches of rain had fallen at the Oak View measuring station this season, just 54.8 percent of the normal of 21.07 inches.
Only 12.61 inches had fallen at Casitas Dam, just 56.4 percent of the historic average of 22.37 inches.
Only 12.68 inches had fallen in Ojai, just 62.4 percent of the average of 20.33 to this date.
And at the wetter Matilija Dam station, only 16.53 inches had fallen, 61.1 percent of the average of 27.06 inches to date.
“April’s pretty much the end of the wet season here, and our rainfall is well below normal,” said Ron Merckling, spokesman for the Casitas Municipal Water District, the valley’s largest distributor. “This is our fourth driest year since 1999.”
This year’s rainfall at Casitas’ three principal measuring stations, including wetter Matilija Dam, has averaged 14.66 inches. That compares with the 8.33 inches in 2007, the driest year since 1877, 9.38 inches in 2002 and 11.97 in 1999.
Last year, the Ojai Valley averaged rainfall at those three locations of 28.07 inches, Casitas reported.
But this year’s scarcity of rain and the fact that it came in small storms producing little runoff meant that the Casitas district was able to divert only 491 acre-feet of water to Lake Casitas this year, Merckling said.
That compares with 9,916 acre feet last year, 0 acre-feet in 2007, 12,070 acre-feet in 2006 and 28,581 acre-feet during the winter and spring of 2005, when an average of more than 60 inches of rain fell at Casitas’ measuring locations.
“We need a big storm in order to divert, and we didn’t get it,” said Merckling. “We did get a lot of little rains spread out through the season. But rains need to come in a downpour to help us.”
As a result, Lake Casitas, the valley’s primary water supply during dry years, dropped from about 228,000 acre-feet last May 1 to about 205,000 acre-feet today.
That’s a decline in Lake Casitas from 89.9 percent full last May to 80.8 percent now. The reservoir holds about 254,000 acre-feet at capacity. The last time it approached that level was after the floods of 2005.
Because Lake Casitas serves as the Ojai Valley’s backup water supply, and the valley does not receive water from drought-stricken northern California, Casitas has not had to impose emergency conservation measures.
“If we hadn’t had 2005, we would be close to the 1989 drought situation right now,” said Merckling. “But so far we’re avoiding (the forced cutbacks) the rest of the state is in right now.”
In 1990, after five years of drought, Lake Casitas was only about half full, the level at which a local water emergency is called by the Casitas district, which serves as a backup supplier for about 60,000 residents in Ventura and the valley and most Ojai-area farmers.
Like Lake Casitas, local groundwater supplies have fallen sharply in recent months because of the lack of big rains to saturate the soil and allow water to percolate down into subterranean aquifers.
“The fact that we never had any really big storms, no gully-washers, means we didn’t get much to soak in,” said Russ Klassen, field supervisor for the Ventura River County Water District, which serves 2,100 customers from Oak View to Meiners Oaks.
The Ventura River District considers its wells full when the water level is 15 feet below the surface. They filled up to within 19 feet of the surface during February, the best rainfall month this winter.
“But now we’re back down to 30 feet, so we’ve already lost 11 feet in two months,” Klassen said, “so we still have signs up about the drought. People are forgetting we need to conserve.”
In 2007, several wells of local water districts ran dry.
On the positive side, the local snowpack has been good this winter.
“On the back side of (7,500-foot) Pine Mountain we still had snow last weekend, even after those hot days,” Klassen said.
That means that in a couple of years the valley aquifers will receive high mountain water that has finally percolated into them, he said.
But that doesn’t help cash-strapped local farmers now, who said they didn’t get enough big rains this winter to save them the expense of pumping water to irrigate their crops.
“We need 2 inches every two weeks,” said Emily Ayala, an owner at Friend’s Ranches. “So we had to do quite a bit of watering. The storms were nicely scattered, but there wasn’t enough in them.”
Many farmers still depend mostly on their own wells, resorting to Casitas for more-costly water only during droughts. But Ayala said some of her neighbors are having to drill deeper because of the dropping water table.
Although the Ojai Valley’s water supply is relatively good, Merckling said Casitas has implemented its best management practices program, which includes rebates for residents who switch to low-water appliances and irrigation and subsidies to farmers who install water-efficient systems.
For example, Casitas is offering $150 rebates to residents who buy new, low-water washing machines and $400 rebates to businesses that do the same. It’s offering $100 rebates to residents who install high-efficiency toilets that use only 1.28 gallons per flush and $200 to businesses that do the same. (Average water use of toilets has dropped from 5 gallons in the 1970s, to 3.5 gallons in the ‘80s, to 1.6 gallons in the ‘90s, Merckling said. The 1.28-gallon toilet will be mandated in new construction after 2012.)
Casitas is also picking up part, and sometimes all, of the cost for efficient irrigation systems.
So-called “smart irrigation systems,” which monitor weather conditions and rainfall, typically cost about $350, and all of that would be covered for most residents, Merckling said. But labor is an extra cost.
“We have a lot of gardeners who are promoting this and installing it, including in Rancho Matilija,” Merckling said.
He’s most pleased when large property owners, such as those in Rancho Matilija, convert because it saves so much water, he said.
“Right now, we’re at voluntary conservation,” he said. “But we want to encourage people to conserve. It’s only a matter of time before we see a repetition of the drought of 1944-65.”