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Ventura, Ojai in legal war over water use

Water war between Ventura vs Ojai
Water war between Ventura vs Ojai
Water war between Ventura vs Ojai
Water war between Ventura vs Ojai

VENTURA, Calif. - There is a legal battle between Ventura and the Ojai Valley. Thousands of people have been served with legal papers in a fight over water from the Ventura River.

While the Ventura River may be beautiful, a legal case over its water is turning ugly. Thousands of people like Jessica Colborn, born and raised in Upper Ojai, are being served legal papers. This is because of their wells that use water from the river.

“My parents got served on their property as well as their adjacent property that I am putting my home on,” said Colborn. “So they got served with two different actions because they have two wells on those properties.”

The move has many in the community scared, angry, and lost.

“I mean you get these packets of paper that say a lot of lawyer words, but no one really understands what any of it means,” said Colborn. “And on top of that we lost our home to the Thomas Fire and so this is just salt in the wound.”

Residents in Ojai say the lawsuits came with no warnings.

“None,” said Colborn.

The legal paperwork is the result of decades of government and legal cases accusing Ventura of overusing the river water.

“In 1998 the State of California sent something in writing to the City of Ventura, and told them the river is a problem,” said Trevor Quirk, an Upper Ojai resident, attorney and community activist. “In 2007 the Feds did the same thing in writing. The fish are endangered and you’re pumping the river dry, but the city didn’t do anything.”

In 2014 the Santa Barbara Channelkeeper filed suit accusing the city for taking too much water and hurting habitat for steelhead trout and other wildlife.

“And in 2018 the city decided to allocate over $4,000,000 of taxpayers' money to these Walnut Creek Lawyers to fight the lawsuit,” said Quirk.

“The $4,000,000 was spent; half of which was dedicated to scientific research to find solutions of the watershed,” said Akbar Alikhan, City of Ventura Assistant City Manager. “The remaining portion went to attorney fees, and that was over the course of the past six years.”

Ventura says it is making progress on the water issues, installing gauges in the river to monitor flow and finding ways to eliminate the wildlife effects. But then came the legal papers sent to thousands of people.

“We were required by the courts to notify all property owners that own property that included not only Ojai residents, but it included Ventura residents as well,” said Alikhan. “That went out to roughly 10,000 property owners as well as 2,000 summons for people that have ground water wells.”

“The City is telling the judge we are not the reason the river is being pumped dry, it is everyone else and they are saying, 'Give us permission to sue these people,'” said Quirk.

City leaders deny that accusation, and are now taking steps to slow down the process. They are trying to get better communication from everyone affected by the river.

“One of the failures of the city was the lack of notification prior to these notices going out,” said Alikhan. “That was a fault of ours that we are trying to correct.”

Ventura will ask for a six-month extension on the court case, but Ojai residents and others whose water comes from the river will still have to spend more than $400 dollars each to be involved in the legal process. Something advocates say should have never happened.

“I just really wish that this could've been resolved two years ago without litigation,” said Colborn.

“If there is one thing I can clear up is that this is not a water grab,” said Alikhan. “What we are trying to find is a solution that holds everyone accountable, including the city. We are trying to find a solution that balances the needs of the local habitat while still providing the valuable water to our local residents.

Quirk said the city should drop the lawsuit and pay back what the owners have already paid.

“I’ve advocated on behalf of the people, and we have started what I like to call the people's movement,” said Quirk. “We are not going to allow these people to get sued, we are demanding accountability, we are demanding transparency, and we are organizing.”

Quirk filed papers to run as write-in candidate for the supervisor’s District 1 seat.

The city has set two other meetings to discuss the water issues, and answer questions. The meeting are open to the public.

Feb. 12 at 6 p.m. at the Bell Arts Factory, 432 N. Ventura Ave. in Ventura. Then on Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. at the Oak View Community Center, 18 Valley Road in Oak View. 

Agriculture / California / Community / Environment / Lifestyle

Senerey de los Santos

Senerey de los Santos is a multimedia journalist for KEYT | KCOY | KKFX covering primarily Ventura County.