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Casitas will appeal ruling on water use for steelhead

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  • Paul Jenkin
    Casitas will appeal ruling on water use for steelhead By Zeke Barlow Friday, April 20, 2007 The Casitas Municipal Water District board voted Thursday night to
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 20 9:15 AM

      Casitas will appeal ruling on water use for steelhead

      By Zeke Barlow
      Friday, April 20, 2007

      The Casitas Municipal Water District board voted Thursday night to continue its lawsuit against the federal government and appeal a decision that put a massive crimp in the district's suit last month.

      After 25 citizens most of whom were against continuing the suit spoke at a public hearing, the board voted in closed session to move forward with an appeal, which the district's lawyer has promised will cost $45,000. The vote count was not announced.

      If the district wins the appeal, it still faces at least an additional $100,000 in legal fees during the trial.

      While most citizens opposed moving forward, many said water is too precious a resource not to spend the money needed to win a suit and guarantee water for the district, which serves much of western Ventura County.

      Board member Pete Kaiser said the decision was based on making the best financial decision for the future.

      So far, the district has spent about $500,000 in the case, claiming the federal government should reimburse the district for water it is mandated to send down a fish ladder for the endangered steelhead trout. The $9 million ladder goes around the Robles Diversion so steelhead can migrate up and down the Ventura River.

      The board is appealing a decision handed down last month by U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge John Wiese that said the federal government has a regulatory right to the water, and, therefore, it is not obligated to reimburse Casitas for the water that goes down the ladder. Casitas is claiming the water was a "taking" and the district should be compensated.

      "The case has not gone as well as many had originally hoped," the district's lawyer, Rob Sawyer, said to the crowd of about 40 people Thursday. The district was originally hoping that Wiese would follow an earlier decision that said the federal government should reimburse a different district for taking water. A settlement of $17 million was later reached.

      Fifteen of the 25 speakers spoke against continuing the suit and said the district has an obligation to be good stewards of the land and not be involved in what they called a losing battle.

      "It's time for us to say we are not going to spend any more money and spend our money on conservation," said Ojai resident Kathy Bennett.

      Paul Jenkin, environmental director for the Ventura chapter of the Surfrider Foundation who has been fighting the board to protect the steelhead for years, said either way, the district loses.

      "I don't mind which way you go because if you appeal it you are going to lose and that will set the issue straight," he said.

      Former Ojai Mayor David Bury said the district has fought the fish ladder too much, and it needs to move forward and "show we have the vision and foresight to implement policies to preserve the environment."

      Those in favor of moving forward with the suit said the district has an obligation to look out for the ratepayers' best financial interests and in the long run, the legal costs are justified.

      "Water is going to be the big thing," in the future, said Roberta Baptiste. "To spend this amount of money is nothing."

      Roger Myers, an attorney, said he thinks the case might still be winnable and that the cost of saving the steelhead shouldn't fall on the heads of a few.

      "In fairness to all taxpayers, they should all pay for the preservation of the steelhead and not just the local ratepayers," he said.

      Former board member Jim Coultas said if the government wins this case, there is no telling what may happen in the future.

      "My biggest fear is they will come back in five years and take a whole lot more," he said. After the vote, board member Richard Handley said the district's water delivery budget is now running about a $482,000 deficit – about the cost of the case so far – and capital improvements are not being done.

      Those on the board in favor of the suit liken it to a high stakes poker game where big gambles must be made to win.

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