United Water Conservation District’s (United) effort of the past six years to develop a significantly improved groundwater flow model for the Oxnard Plain and adjacent basins, as described in this report, is part of a broader effort by United and other agencies in the region to better understand the key factors that affect availability and usability of our area’s groundwater resources. Use of these resources, which have been supplemented for the past 90 years by spreading (artificial recharge) of surface water diverted from the Santa Clara River, has been key to the past growth and the future sustainability of cities and agriculture on the Oxnard coastal plain. Groundwater of suitable quality for a wide range of beneficial uses can be withdrawn from wells and delivered to cities or farms on
the Oxnard coastal plain and in the Santa Clara River valley without construction of extensive, costly infrastructure projects (such as the aqueducts and surface reservoirs of the State Water Project), and provides a reliable water supply and resilience against potential major disruptions such as earthquakes and droughts. Although imported surface water from northern California began contributing significantly to the region’s municipal water-supply portfolio over the past half century, and desalination of brackish water or seawater may play an important water-supply role for the region in the future, neither of these alternative sources of water-supply can match the low cost and small environmental footprint of the existing groundwater resources, as enhanced by United’s recharge operations.
Unfortunately, the relative accessibility, reliability, and low cost of groundwater for water supply has resulted in it being extracted from the aquifers underlying the Oxnard coastal plain at a faster rate than it has been replenished over the long term. This “overdraft” has resulted in corresponding groundwater-level declines in regional aquifers that have only been partly reversed during wet climatic cycles. In turn, these groundwater-level declines have resulted in seawater intrusion into the regional aquifers near the coast (since the 1930s), and could potentially exacerbate other water-quality problems or cause subsidence of land surface if allowed to continue. United coordinated with other regional water-supply stakeholders to plan and implement major projects in the 1950s, 1980s, and 1990s to mitigate the effects of overdraft, and these efforts have been partially successful. However, under California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) of 2015, groundwater sustainability plans (GSPs) must be developed and implemented by 2020 to provide long-term solutions that will prevent further negative impacts in “critically overdrafted basins,” including the Oxnard Plain and Pleasant Valley basins, and by 2022 for other groundwater basins in United’s service area.
The geometry and physical characteristics of the aquifers, combined with the interactions of the stresses acting on those aquifers, within the regional groundwater basins are complex. The complexity is compounded by spatial and temporal variability of groundwater recharge and discharge. In order to forecast the effects of potential future water-supply alternatives with a sufficient level of certainty to evaluate and design new projects, it became evident to United in 2011 that the region needed a numerical groundwater-flow model that could discretely simulate each of the seven individual aquifer systems and six intervening aquitards that comprise the multi-layered regional aquifer system beneath the Oxnard and Pleasant Valley groundwater basins. The California Department of Water Resources notes that “while models are, by definition, a simplification of a more complex reality, they have proven to be useful tools over several decades for addressing a range of groundwater problems and supporting the decision-making process. Models can be useful tools for estimating the potential hydrologic effects of proposed water management activities” (Joseph and others, 2016).
Numerical models of local groundwater basins developed by California Department of Water Resources in the 1970s, and by the U.S. Geological Survey in the 1990s, were useful for answering the questions about groundwater being asked at those times. However, these models assumed a greatly simplified hydrologic system, consisting of one, two, or three “lumped” aquifers, rather than explicitly modeling the seven aquifers (and six aquitards) that actually exist in the region. This oversimplification was necessary at the time due to limitations in available data, as well as limitations in computer processing power. Consequently, these models produced simulated groundwater elevations that did not always match measured groundwater elevations very well in some key areas, including near the coast and in recharge zones, reducing the reliability and increasing the uncertainty of forecasts for future conditions. Therefore, in 2012 United initiated, with financial and technical support from regional stakeholders, development of the numerical model described in this report (“Ventura Regional Groundwater Flow Model,” or VRGWFM), which discretely simulates each aquifer and aquitard underlying the Oxnard coastal plain as a distinct “layer” (in modeling terminology). The goal of this effort is to achieve significant improvement in calibration compared to previous models, allowing simulation of a greater range of natural and man-made hydrogeologic processes that have occurred in the past, and thereby increase the reliability of model predictions for the future. That said, the California Department of Water Resources warns, “there should be no expectation that a single ‘true’ model exists. All models and model results will have some level of uncertainty” (Joseph and others, 2016). For this reason, United is committed to continuous improvement of the VRGWFM as new data and improved methods become available, to minimize potential uncertainty.
United would like to acknowledge the financial support provided by the Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency (FCGMA) and the Santa Clara River Watershed Committee, as well as the technical input and assistance provided by the FCGMA Technical Advisory Group (TAG), the Calleguas Municipal Water District’s technical staff and consultants, and the participants of the Expert Panel convened by United to review and provide guidance for improving the model (Dr. Sorab Panday, James Rumbaugh, and John Porcello). United would also like to acknowledge the various water and sanitation districts (including Ventura County Watershed Protection District), municipalities, and individuals that provided data to support development of the VRGWFM. We especially want to acknowledge the importance of the U.S. Geological Survey effort in the 1990s and 2000s to establish a regional groundwater monitoring-well network and construct the first MODFLOW model for the basins underlying the entire Santa Clara River and Calleguas Creek watersheds; their model was a critical “jumping-off point” for the VRGWFM. Finally, United’s Groundwater Department staff would like to recognize the foresight and patience of United’s Board of Directors, previous and present General Managers, and—most notably—former Groundwater Department Manager Tony Morgan, for their efforts in kicking off this modeling effort six years ago and guiding/pushing staff to completion of “Version 1.0” today.