WATER ON THE BRAIN: Fish, as Mark Twain famously never wrote, are for eating — preferably glazed with a nice béarnaise sauce — while water is reserved for those inclined to go postal.
The fragile peace between the various up- and downstream water agencies competing for the Santa Ynez River’s intermittent flows has been violently shattered in recent weeks. Comically obscure (and diabolically inscrutable) über-water agencies, where differences between rival water districts traditionally have been hashed out, now find themselves imploding and exploding at the same time. Discourse between member agencies has taken on the high dysfunctionality common to child custody battles. For those who get off on disaster porn, all this would be salacious were it not for the stakes involved. Because of a long-simmering tiff about the most convoluted, remote, and abstract of issues — the water equivalent of angels dancing on the head of a pin — a tiny water district most people have never heard of, the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District No. 1, has put at risk a $10 million project needed to prevent significant summertime water shortages from occurring. Also placed in jeopardy was a $3.2-million grant set aside to help get this project — dubbed the Double Barrel — finally built. Without the Double Barrel — a second water tunnel connecting the Lake Cachuma reservoir to the Goleta treatment plant — South Coast water managers seriously worry they can’t cram enough water into the existing tunnel to meet demand for more than five hot days in a row. They used to augment their supply from water stored in the Gibraltar Reservoir, but because of siltation caused by the recent Zaca Fire, Gibraltar has lost 30 percent of its water capacity. As a result, South Coast water managers fear they’ll be forced to drop the R-Bomb. That stands for rationing, folks, and it ain’t pretty. Last time they tried anything close to it, Santa Barbara’s golfers stormed the council chambers, armed with putters and nine-irons, furious anyone might suggest their precious greens had to go brown.
Back when Lake Cachuma was built nearly 60 years ago, the five agencies drawing water from the dam formed the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board (COMB) to handle the nuts-and-bolts functions of running a huge water operation. In addition to Santa Barbara, Montecito, Goleta, and Carpinteria, it also included the small Santa Ynez district, known henceforth as ID1. Tensions broke out among member agencies from time to time, as downstream users tend to regard anyone upstream with keen suspicion and outright hostility. To deal with such acrimonious water rights issues, all the same agencies subsequently joined together to form the Cachuma Conservation Release Board (CCRB). Although these two agencies have the same boardmembers, the same manager, the same staff, the same meeting room, and the same offices, they are legally separate and distinct. Just like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Where ID1 is concerned, these differences are critical. But the other member agencies don’t see it that way, and therein lies the friction that sparked the latest conflagration.
Like a lot of water agencies, ID1 got its underwear in a bunch over efforts to revive the steelhead trout — declared a federally endangered species in 1997 — which used to swim up the Santa Ynez in such profusion that Fred Astaire could tap-dance from bank to bank on their backs without getting his socks wet. The steelhead were pretty much wiped out when Lake Cachuma was built, blocking their way from the ocean to prime spawning grounds further up the Santa Ynez. Today, COMB and CCRB have been forced to make some retroactive accommodation to allow small numbers of the fish to return. They release water for the steelhead to swim in and they remove barriers — like roads crossings and culverts — blocking the steelhead’s way. Naturally, the fish-heads advocating for the steelhead presume the worst about most water agencies. But in their eyes, the most recalcitrant bunch of foot-dragging naysayers can be found at ID1.
Getting back to the Double-Barrel, rationing, and World War III on the Santa Ynez, ID1 insists CCRB — and not COMB — is responsible for any and all work done on behalf of the steelhead. ID1 went ballistic earlier this year when it appeared that a COMB employee was conspiring to get grant funds to remove an old culvert downstream from the dam that might impede steelhead access to the river. On January 22, the ID1 board issued a scorching letter, arguing such actions exceeded COMB’s authority and placed in peril ID1’s fundamental water rights. (If a water agency is forced to release water to create habitat for the fish, I can see how that affects water rights. But if an agency simply removes a physical barrier to the fish, I fail to see how water rights are involved at all. But unlike ID1, I am not spending up to $800,000 a year for legal advice from expensive water rights experts. If I were, no doubt, I would see the connection.) ID1 threatened to veto the bond measure needed to pay for the Double Barrel project desperately sought by South Coast water agencies. Three days later, it carried out that threat. In response, Santa Barbara’s COMB representative, Das Williams, went berserk. “I want a divorce,” he declared at this week’s board meeting. At one point, Williams asked ID1 rep Lee Bettencourt what his attorney had just been telling him. “I just asked him about my marital problems,” Bettencourt replied. In retaliation, Williams tried to get ID1 tossed off the COMB board. That qualifies as a first. But ID1 enjoys veto power, so that effort failed. Instead, Williams is angling to get the City of Santa Barbara to take over responsibility for building the Double Barrel, a huge and exhausting undertaking. In turn, Montecito and Goleta would pay Santa Barbara their share.
To be fair, ID1 offered, at the last minute, to rescind its veto if COMB agreed not to leave any and all fish work to CCRB until the two organizations could work out their differences. Williams said that would take until infinity and beyond, and dismissed the offer. In the meantime, however, it’s not clear that CCRB will even continue to exist. At this week’s Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde joint water agency board meeting, Carpinteria and Montecito announced they were leaving CCRB. And that raises the million-dollar question of who — or what — will be responsible for bringing back the steelhead. Naturally, if we encounter water shortages this summer, people will blame the steelhead. But their only crime is surviving long enough to be declared endangered. Besides, they lived here first.