Sept. 19, 2013
Kimberly Rivers, OVN correspondent
Coyote Creek is dry. The spring fed troughs of Gridley Springs Camp are dry. The pond at the Meadows Preserve is dry. Creeks that usually provide swimming holes till late summer were dry in early spring this year.
“When black sage dies of drought, that is saying something,” said Brian Stark, conservation operations director for the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy (OVLC). Black sage is a highly drought-resistant native plant. Stark says that while he personally hasn’t seen anything “radical” in terms of wildlife having trouble dealing with the drought, he is seeing the plants change. The coastal live oaks and sycamore trees, he said, are dropping a lot of leaves. “Normally this is behavior we see in November, but it is happening in September. It is showing they are highly drought stressed. They will survive; it’s their response to be conservative.”
Residents of the Ojai Valley are encouraged to mimic the plants behavior.
“We need to be proactive, instead of reactive,” said Ron Merckling, manager of water conservation and public affairs for Casitas Municipal Water District. “Conserve now to avoid difficult decisions in the future. It appears we could be close to 2004 levels as early as December.”
Merckling explained that right now the lake is 64 percent full, and unless there is significant rainfall between now and December — which is not expected — levels may reach 62 percent, which is similar to levels in 2004. The lake was even lower in 1991. “Significant rain fall means a good rain storm over several days; six inches or more of rain,” Merckling said.
As water users with private wells and municipal suppliers of water — who depend first on groundwater — deplete those sources, they turn to Lake Casitas to supply their water. “Those ground water sources are being depleted right now. The city of Ventura, city of Ojai, Golden State (Water Company), Meiners Oaks (Water District) and smaller mutuals are using a lot of lake water now.”
Many farmers normally irrigate from private wells supplied by groundwater, but when those are depleted they turn to Casitas. Merckling says 45 percent of water sold by Casitas is used in agriculture. He expects demand for water from the lake to increase and he reminded residents that the Ojai Valley is not connected to state water or the Colorado River, as are other parts of Southern California. For the Ojai Valley, Merckling said, “Water is local. There is a limited supply. Once it’s gone, that’s it. Before we had the lake, water trucks were brought in. I don’t think we want that. It’s important to act now.”
The Casitas website, www.casitaswater.org, has a lake level graphic that is continually updated.
Although the drought paints a sobering image, Merckling says water quality at the lake remains stable. As water levels drop, however, it is hard to pinpoint when an algae bloom could occur and affect both the wildlife in the lake and the quality of the water. He points out that it is hard to predict when water quality could become an issue, but that it’s not likely to be a concern as long as the lake’s level stays above 50 percent. “Twenty percent — that would significantly affect water quality,” he said.
Residents and others who keep an eye on local wildlife are seeing subtle shifts in the behavior of local mammals. Wachters Hay and Grain, in downtown Ojai, reports a recent spike in requests for the skunk odor remover they sell.
“Skunks in your backyard, coyotes moving into town. We are seeing some issues,” said Kim Stroud, director of the Ojai Raptor Center. “We definitely are seeing issues, especially with the mammals more than the birds. Birds adapt better and have fewer babies when there is less prey. Rodents have fewer babies when there is less rain. Unfortunately, squirrels don’t seem to be affected, and still have lots of babies.” Stroud says the center puts out water troughs to keep wild animals from digging into the holding areas of the animals they are rehabilitating. She explained that birds can fly to water sources but, “The mammals, such as bears, deer, bobcats, mountain lions and coyotes have to gravitate towards food and water sources, which puts them in our yards. We need to be tolerant and educated about how to deal with wildlife in our yards.” She explained that they are seeing a lot of deer being hit by cars as they move across roads toward the remaining water sources.
Some reports of animals not being able to reach Lake Casitas have concerned area residents.
“We are seeing more injured wildlife,” said Jim Hines, longtime Ojai Valley resident and active Sierra Club member. “The fences were put up to keep people out (of the lake) … and it causes an unnatural sharing of migration routes, leading to conflicts.” He explains that fences are frequently put up without any consideration to the impacts on the territories of local wildlife. And in times of drought, when water sources decline, the impact of fences is amplified. “Deer and other large mammals cannot get through the fencing. Normally they would walk across a roadway and keep going; now the fence stops them. They get confused. They are literally up against a wall.”
Hines explained that the herds will adapt and find other routes over time, but in times of drought, all the animals have to compete for a smaller number of water sources. “We really need a cumulative impact report on the fencing,” Hines said, “and the effects on habitat conservation and loss of population.”
“We have witnessed deer going through the passages or jumping over,” said Merckling, regarding whether or not the fences have stopped wildlife from getting to the lake. “Wildlife corridors were built into it and there have not been any increased incidents of deer being hit (by cars) near the fence,” said Merckling.
Reports of mangy-looking coyotes have come in from residents around the valley. Hines agrees coyotes can be hit hard by droughts.
“Coyotes are a good indicator species,” he said. “They are common, easy to identify and anyone without any expertise can see whether they are healthy or sick.” The drought means fewer rodents for the coyotes, so they move closer to water sources where there may still be prey.
The problem is that other coyotes, bobcats, foxes, bears and mountain lions are doing the same. Animals may also exhibit unusual behavior, such as entering residential neighborhoods more frequently. Hines suggests providing water sources on properties that are in the buffer zone between the wild lands and town. Areas along Rice Road, Foothill Road and others that animals will be crossing to get further into town could be a natural stopping spot for animals needing a drink. Hines points out that we are living in their habitat.
“Drought is an important part of the chaparral ecosystem; it is part of the natural cycle,” said Hines. However, “Man has interrupted that,” he added, by living where we do.
Visit www.casitaswater.org for water conservation tips, rebates and more.