Drought Resilience along the Santa Clara River

Many of the Central Coast’s low-income communities of color, overburdened with toxic pollution and pesticide use, live next to once-beautiful environmental assets like rivers and wetlands in the process of being restored for public access.

Western Ventura County has grown alongside the Santa Clara River, depending on it for fresh water for drinking and watering crops, recreation, swimming and fishing.  Today the Santa Clara is the longest remaining natural river system left in Southern California, with the flow of many rivers in places like Los Angeles encased in concrete.  Yet the Santa Clara is now one of the most endangered rivers in the country, with poor water management and drought threatening the natural habitats of plants and animals as well as the communities that line its banks. 

The United Water Conservation District, which manages the water supply of the Santa Clara River Valley and the Oxnard Plain, draws large amounts of water from the river year-round for agribusiness rather than building infrastructure to divert, store, and infiltrate water during the occasional heavy rainfalls to save for drier months.  The groundwater basins of the fertile Oxnard plain are facing dangerous declines, threatening to cause seawater to intrude from the coast and contaminate the fresh groundwater necessary for drinking and growing crops.

Decades of irresponsible water policy have caused growers to switch from sustainable tree crops like lemons and avocados to water-intensive berry crops like strawberries and raspberries.  Over-extraction of water from the Santa Clara, obtained at exceptionally low prices compared to elsewhere in California, allows agribusiness to ignore taking simple water conservation measures. 

The communities of Oxnard, Ventura, El Rio, Saticoy, Santa Paula, Fillmore, and Piru have thrived alongside the Santa Clara River for generations.  Decades ago, local youth and families could enjoy this natural resource for swimming and fishing.  Yet today, most locals are barely aware that the river exists because rising diversion of water since the 1940’s has weakened the river’s flow downstream of the dam, leaving only a dry trickle.  Low-income youth of color already have limited positive recreational opportunities in their neighborhoods, and inefficient water extraction for agriculture is taking away one of the only free places in their community to go and enjoy nature.

The Wishtoyo Foundation, CAUSE and the Center for Biological Diversity have filed a Public Trust, Unreasonable Use, and Unreasonable Method of Diversion complaint against the water district for its wasteful diversion of water from the Santa Clara River.  We are urging the water district to take the necessary steps to improve our region’s resilience to drought, protect Ventura County’s beautiful environment, and allow local families and youth to enjoy this natural resource.Many of the Central Coast’s low-income communities of color, overburdened with toxic pollution and pesticide use, live next to once-beautiful environmental assets like rivers and wetlands in the process of being restored for public access.

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