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Opinion – Steve Bennett: A Historic Water Vote to Give the Public a Voice
Published in the Ventura County Star
Sunday, May 3, 2015

This Tuesday the Ventura County Board of Supervisors will make one of the most important decisions in the history of Ventura County. The management of Ventura County's groundwater may not be the most exciting topic, but it is likely the most important to the future of our 800,000 residents.

There is a fundamental decision to be made. Should the management of the groundwater in Ventura County be left exclusively in the hands of those who pump groundwater, primarily single-purpose water agencies often dominated by major groundwater pumpers? Or, should it be shared between those who pump and the entities (the county and the cities) that determine the land use above our aquifers?

The decision is a permanent one. If the Board of Supervisors or any city decides not to get involved now, state law permanently blocks them from shared decision-making in the future. If they decide to be part of the process, they can work out the details of shared management with water agencies later.

The various groundwater basins in Ventura County are connected. What happens in one basin affects the others. It is clearly in the best interest of the residents of Ventura County to have shared decision-making on how fast water will be pumped from our groundwater aquifers.

It is equally clear that many of those who currently control much of the water policies in Ventura County do not want to share decision-making with those who more broadly and publicly represent the community's interests.

Why is shared decision-making needed?

Because throughout the history of the world, societies have had great difficulty keeping their use of a natural resource at a sustainable level. Resource overuse and collapse are almost always the norm.

Ventura County is no exception. The pressure to over-pump the groundwater is powerful and overdraft is occurring. The decisions to restrain use have not been adequate. The long-term consequences can be catastrophic.

Our aquifers were once overflowing. Today they are under threat from overdraft, contamination, seawater intrusion, and land subsidence.

After four years of drought, few would dispute that Ventura County's most precious resource is our groundwater, which was built up over centuries. Our groundwater serves as a source of drinking water for nearly all of our cities. It is a source of clean water for agricultural production. It is vital to future generations that we use it at a sustainable rate.

Traditionally, those who harvested or exploited any natural resources blocked the hard decisions needed to achieve sustainability.

We cannot make that mistake with Ventura County's groundwater. Shared decision-making is the best way to ensure we make the best decisions. It provides the broadest range of perspectives on this critical issue.

The new California groundwater law allows local water districts and/or cities and counties, to manage the priority groundwater basins. There are 11 of them in Ventura County. The State's logic for including cities and counties is that they regulate the land over the aquifers, and land use decisions and water use are fundamentally linked.

Making calculations and decisions about safe yield and sustainable pumping rates for the various basins will be one of the most challenging tasks facing us.

Historically, when fisherman, for example, have been given opportunities to propose the safe fishing yield of a species, they consistently argued for higher numbers than the representatives of the broader public.

When challenged, fishermen professed concern about the long-term health of fisheries. However, there is a consistent history of fishermen's resistance to fishing limits leading to collapse of fish stocks. The same pressures exist regarding groundwater pumping. Short term over-use now risks serious long-term degradation.

Ventura County government is well qualified to represent how pumping in one basin affects the other basins in the county. County staff have been studying groundwater basins many years and have substantial in-house data and expertise.

A partnership will increase the likelihood that critical decisions on water are made in a more public arena with a broader perspective. Water district meetings generally have less public involvement and press coverage than those of cities or county government. Do you want your city government to be blocked from representing you when critical decisions are made concerning groundwater pumping?

The sustainable use of our groundwater is one of our major challenges. The decisions about its management are vital to the long term future of our county. That is why we should have the broad perspective of local government to balance the viewpoint of the single-purpose water districts. Our critical water resources deserve nothing less.

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