Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Sewer Water Use Defended

By Daryl KelleyUnder sharp questioning, Ventura city representatives defended this week a plan to use treated sewer water to flush oil wells and irrigate orchards along the lower Ventura River, instead of using all of the effluent to bolster the river’s flow and maintain its plants and animals.
In a presentation to directors of the Ojai Valley Sanitary District, a scientist who studied the potential diversion said half of the 2 million gallons a day that flow from the Ojai sewer plant near Foster Park could be diverted elsewhere without harming the river.
That level of reuse “appears feasible from the environmental and cost-benefit analysis,” said biologist Howard Bailey, a consultant for the city of Ventura. A full environmental review would have to be completed before any diversion could take place, he noted.
Ventura is considering such a plan because reuse of sewer effluent would save 1 million gallons a day of clean drinking and reservoir water that the city now provides to Aera Energy to pump into oil wells and to citrus farmers for irrigation, officials said. State policy favors conserving clean water by replacing it with recycled wastewater whenever possible.
Ventura has first claim on Ojai’s treated effluent because it owns the sewer plant site and leases it to the Sanitary District. But the city can divert the effluent only if that does not harm the habitat of river plants and more than a dozen birds, fish and other animals protected by a variety of state and federal programs — including the Southern steelhead trout, the tidewater goby, the Least Bell’s vireo and the California least term.
That possibility of harm prompted pointed questions by OVSD directors, who were concerned that diverting any flow in drought years could cause the river to nearly dry up.
Director Stan Greene, a former president of Citizens to Preserve the Ojai, said he was not satisfied with the environmental analysis in the city’s draft report, scheduled for submission to state water officials by mid-September.
“What are the real needs of all the (river) ecosystems in terms of water?” Greene asked. “You started with that, but I get the feeling somewhere along the way you started playing with numbers.”
Directors Russ Baggerly and Pete Kaiser also questioned Bailey and Ventura officials about the study.
Kaiser asked how pollution that’s often washed into the river would be diluted if the effluent flow – which provides almost all of the river’s water in very dry summers – was cut in half. And he wanted to know whether the endangered steelhead trout would be stranded in shallow pools if the water was diverted.
Bailey said the pollution issue would have to be addressed in a subsequent detailed study. But he said that the steelhead could find safe haven in five or six deep pools along the lower river, and that they would be cloistered in river pools in dry years even if all the sewer wastewater was still flowing into the river.
Kaiser asked how the aesthetics of five miles of river from the sewer plant to the ocean — fed by sewer effluent since 1964 — would be changed by the reduction in flow.
“Is this (plan) feasible even though there are all of these uncertainties?” he said.
Bailey said the project could not go forward without addressing all of the uncertainties.
But the primary unknown, he said, is not the effects of diversions on animals and habitat, but what it might mean to the supply of groundwater in the river basin. He said water rights claims by downstream users might also foil the reuse plan.
Bailey insisted that changes in the river’s width and depth would be “relatively small” because of the diversion. “And as far as change in the aesthetics,” he said, “it’s not likely to be large.”
But Baggerly, a former chair of the county Environmental Coalition, wasn’t buying it.
He noted that a 1940s state Department of Fish and Game study reported that the lower Ventura River and its estuary were suitable habitat for 1,000 steelhead trout, and that the same estimate had been repeated in reports in recent years.
“So it has a lot more need for water than I think you’re giving it,” Baggerly told Bailey. “If you reduce (the effluent) flow by half, you don’t know what it’s going to do to the size or depth of the estuary.”
Bailey insisted that the estuary was more suitable for dozens of steelhead, not 1,000. “The idea of 1,000 spawning there is not feasible.”
But Bailey acknowledged that the report’s analysis of the diversion’s effect on the spawning, rearing and migration of steelhead was prepared without the comments of the trout expert the city hired for that purpose. That report from biologist Matt Stoecker of Ventura was late, Bailey said, so the draft report was written without it.
The report’s conclusions that the diversion would have no effect on steelhead migration and little impact on spawning were based on interviews with other experts, he said.
He insisted that Stoecker agreed with the report’s main conclusions. But he acknowledged that Stoecker, like Baggerly, thinks the estuary is a good place for raising young steelhead, while other experts focus on the upstream for rearing the fish because of contaminates in the lower river.
Another surprise from Monday’s meetings in Ojai and at Ventura City Hall was that Aera Energy, which would use 90 percent of the diverted effluent, was considering drilling deep wells to get water to inject into its oil wells.
Ventura officials said it was the first they’d heard of Aera’s plans, and that they were counting on the energy company to be the primary buyer of the diverted effluent.
But Ted Witt, manager of operations at Aera, said in an interview that the company had not yet decided whether it would sign an agreement with the city to purchase the treated wastewater.
“We’re considering whether we want to sign a memorandum of understanding on that,” he said. “And drilling a deep water well could offset what we need to purchase from the city.”
In a separate communication, Santa Barbara Channelkeeper, which has led a water-quality monitoring program of the Ventura River for six years, recommended against any diversion of effluent unless that water is fully replaced.
“Channelkeeper finds that there is currently not enough information regarding Ventura River water resources to make any determination that moves this project forward,” a spokesman said in a letter to the city.
Along with the water users, Ventura officials are also asking the Sanitary District to sign an agreement about the effluent diversion. That needs to occur as the city submits its report in September to the state Water Resources Control Board. Then, if all agree, the proposal would receive a full review under California’s strict environmental protection laws.
“This is definitely not the end of the analysis,” Bailey told the Sanitary District directors, most of whom had not yet read the report.
He asked that the board formally respond to the report by mid-August.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr./Ms. Kelley,

As the leader of the study team evaluating the potential feasibility of re-use of the Ojai Valley Sanitary District Effluent, I wanted to clarify some important mis-conceptions presented in your article of 24 July. This is important from the perspective of protecting the integrity of the process, as well as maintaining the perceptions of the professionalism of project participants. First, Matt Stoecker was not “late” with his comments as you have indicated. The schedule for the draft report was driven by constraints imposed by the funding agency, and Matt’s schedule had other commitments that precluded his involvement at an earlier date. We now have his comments, and are in the process of reviewing them. Further to that process, I did not “insist” at the meeting that Matt agreed with the “conclusions” of the draft report, only that he was in general agreement with the uncertainties in the analysis noted in the report. Matt’s comments, among others, are being incorporated into the report as it is finalized.

I would also like to take this opportunity to emphasize to your readers that this is a “feasibility” study, and not a recommendation for specific instream flows. Rather, it is an assessment of whether a project is potentially “do-able”, in this case as determined by comparison to historical flows and the likelihood that possible effects can be offset by a reasonable level of mitigation. It also appropriately identifies uncertainties that will need to be addressed before any re-allocation of the discharge is undertaken. Finally, the general focus on upstream areas for spawning and rearing has nothing to do with the presence of contaminants in the lower river; we did not identify any evidence that contaminants are limiting fish production in this reach. There is some thought that low dissolved oxygen concentrations associated with dense macrophyte beds may be limiting, but this is not a contaminants issue.

Thank you for the opportunity to clarify these issues.

Howard Bailey
Nautilus Environmental