Monday night city staff and council made headway on two of the most serious problems facing our town, vagrancy and our worsening water situation. It was one of the most productive meetings I have seen in awhile.

Just a few short months ago, I would not have thought a year-round homeless shelter would be in place by the end of the year. But that’s now a possibility. To see it propelled so quickly down the runway was heartening. The county has committed a building on Knoll Drive near the cemetery to the effort and will help provide services. An RFP has gone out to find an operator. The council asked for priority for Ventura residents and for our police when bringing people in.

Staff is hoping to capture money now available from the state for these efforts. And whatever operator is chosen should have the capacity to generate funds as well.

Solving a city’s thorniest problems requires money and political will. Often neither are in abundance. But if the stars align, you can add shelters, hire more staff, pave roads and build infrastructure.

But you can’t make it rain.

And therein lies what I believe to be the city’s most pressing problem. I detailed our city’s water situation a month ago in this post. It came to council again Monday night. Lake Casitas is now at 33.8 percent of capacity. In a normal year it accounts for about a quarter of Ventura’s water supply. We are now receiving only 70 percent of our allocation and we may go to 60 percent soon. Our climate is changing and even in rainier years, storms have not replenished this lake. Our groundwater sources are also dwindling.

Dan Cormode of the East Ventura Community Council makes the same point at every City Council meeting that water is discussed. What if Casitas goes dry before we can get our connection to the State Water Project built?

He never gets an answer.

It is clear Ventura Water General Manager Kevin Brown and staff understand the urgency of connecting to state water. He is trying to get the connection built before its anticipated date of 2023 and it is currently in the draft EIR stage. But it will not bring us more water, it likely will just make up for the reductions in other sources. We have paid millions over the years for the rights to this water.

Water staff is instead counting on the WaterPure recycled water project to be our reliable source. It could bring up to 3,898 acre feet by the year 2025. Because of a negotiated settlement with groups who threatened a lawsuit under the Clean Water Act, we are under orders to divert some of the discharge from Ventura’s Water Reclamation Facility from a nearby estuary. The diversion program could become the state’s first direct potable reuse project when regulations are developed for it. Water from our treatment plant could be cleaned to high drinking water standards and put back into our system. Many other cities use recycled water but put it into settling ponds or groundwater supplies and clean it again before it goes into the system. This is called indirect potable reuse and it already has regulatory approval. It is more costly than direct potable reuse. A cost comparison can be found here.

Understandably, some residents — and councilmembers — are squeamish about being the state’s direct potable reuse pioneer, but it could attract more grant money to the project which is estimated to cost $176 million. A public relations effort would be needed.

And how do we pay for all this? The city is applying for grants, which the Council approved Monday night. In addition, the Water Commission proposed and the Council voted to impose a Net Zero water fee to assure that new development does not adversely affect the water supply or water supply reliability of the city’s existing customers. It has generated $418,398 so far. For the new 24-Hour Fitness that will occupy the old Barker Brothers building at our mall, it came up at $300,000. It will also be leveled at both market-rate and affordable housing projects, new hotels that could bring us tourism dollars, and any new project that will add square footage or increase water use on an existing parcel. 

This has not pleased our business community which feels it will discourage new investment in our city. Matthew Graczyk, chair of the Chamber of Commerce PAC, said he wants to look at how we are all using water and restructure our rate system to spread the costs of new water infrastructure out among all users. Other residents believe we should just limit growth.

Dwindling water resources have the potential to affect every facet of our lives. Why did Ventura wait so long to tackle a problem that has been on the radar at least since 1992 when voters gave the go-ahead for a desalination plant? A Los Angeles Times article shows we were having identical conversations 26 years ago. At that time, the cost of a desalination plant was estimated at $30.4 million and was estimated to bring in 7,000 acre feet a year.

We’ve kicked that can down the road a long time time and now that we’re opening it we find it may be full of worms.