Boiling Point

Goleta Water District Board Race Heats Up

by Martha Sadler

The upcoming election to fill two seats on the Goleta Water District board has plunged the district into a cauldron of controversy that brings to mind the raucous water battles of the 1980s. Back then, water politics were the means by which the local citizenry fought against development in the suburban valley, and the board’s meetings got pretty rough. Things settled down some in 1991, when the drought-weary people of Goleta finally voted to import State Water — on the condition that only one percent of it annually could be used for new development. Then in 2002, when Goleta incorporated and the development battles moved to City Hall, the water board receded altogether into dull respectability.

The main issue the board faces today is the struggle of farmers to survive in the Goleta Valley — the price of agricultural water being one of the determinants. Currently, the Goleta Water District charges the lowest rate in the area for ag water — just $1.00 per 100 cubic feet, while residential users pay $3.71. The water district has the power to put farmers out of business by changing that rate structure. Adding pressure to the situation is the fact that the water district’s financial reserves are about $4 million lower than they should be.

Five candidates are vying for the two available seats on the board. One of them is Jack Ruskey, a retired attorney and a cherimoya farmer. Ruskey burst onto the scene by leading a contingent of other farmers in a successful effort to defeat a proposed hike in agricultural water rates. Ruskey’s major issue now is the prohibitive cost to farmers of increasing the amount of water they use beyond their farms’ historical water use. He is running in tandem with Bert Bertrando, a retired engineer who served for 10 years at La Cumbre Mutual Water District, which serves Hope Ranch. Hope Ranch, where Bertrando lives, does not actually receive water from the Goleta Water District but nevertheless votes in its elections due to an historical anomaly. Bertrando and Ruskey have been relentless gadflies for the past two years, attending all of the water district’s meetings and ceaselessly criticizing its policies and practices. In the process, they have accumulated an enormous wealth of knowledge and come up with numerous ideas for increasing revenues and containing costs. One of their most controversial proposals is to do away with the water conservation program. Instead of promoting low-flow showerheads, they said, the district should sell more water to its residential customers.

Laurie Kurilla, a professional geologist, is another GWD board candidate who lives in Hope Ranch. Kurilla is supported by the Goleta Chamber of Commerce and Republican party activists, who tend to support the private property rights of landowners desiring to cash out of ag by developing their land. However, she professes to be neutral on land development issues. Kurilla attacked Ruskey and Bertrando’s stance against the district’s water conservation program, taking the position that State Water is unreliable and that conservation is practical as well as environmentally responsible.

Craig Geyer, a plumbing contractor and Isla Vista landlord, is running on a platform of inclusivity. He proposed that a permanent agricultural advisory committee be established, even suggesting that the committee get a vote on the board — an original and unprecedented idea of uncertain legality. Geyer said district definitions need to be clearer in order to determine who gets charged at what rate: What is true agriculture, for example, and what mere landscaping? Kurilla and Bertrando should not be elected because they are not district customers, according to Geyer. “It would be taxation without representation.”

Jack Cunningham is the candidate who most surely represents the present board’s easygoing, apolitical posture. The only incumbent in the running, he has served since 1995. As to agriculture’s future, he said he doesn’t believe the board has ever forced anybody out of agriculture — though he believes many landowners are voluntarily and “wisely” cashing out and making a bundle in an increasingly urban environment.

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