A nasty $3.2 million game of political chicken was called off this Monday when a small Santa Ynez water agency agreed to withdraw its opposition to a proposed second water pipeline that would connect Lake Cachuma to Goleta, deemed essential by three of the South Coast’s major water districts. In exchange, the three water agencies have agreed not to pursue any projects on behalf of the federally endangered steelhead trout — at least not within the jurisdiction of the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board (COMB) — through the end of this year.
The Santa Ynez district — known as I.D. 1 — had complained COMB had improperly undertaken such fish protection efforts despite its opposition. Accordingly, the Santa Ynez district exercised its veto power as a COMB member this January over the proposed $10 million water tunnel project — dubbed the “double barrel” — even though it would have incurred no portion of the debt. This infuriated the Santa Barbara, Goleta, and Montecito water agencies, which accused the Santa Ynez district of dropping “an atom bomb” on their customers over an a complex bureaucratic jurisdictional squabble totally peripheral to the pipeline project. By doing so, the Santa Ynez district also put in jeopardy a $3.2 million grant COMB had secured for pipeline construction. That grant expires in 2012, and if the project is not approved and under construction by then, the grant disappears.
Last week, the three agencies — lead by Santa Barbara — retaliated by threatening to build the double barrel on their own, outside the auspices of COMB. South Coast agencies contend the “double barrel” is necessary to augment existing water deliveries during high demand summer months. Without it, they contend, the existing water lines cannot deliver the quantity of water south coast residents typically use during the months of July and August.
In the past, the difference was made up with deliveries from Lake Gibraltar, a back-up reservoir owned by the City of Santa Barbara. But since the Zaca Fire, Gibraltar has been inundated with silt deposits that have drastically reduced its carrying capacity. Had the Santa Ynez district not relented in its opposition, it would have risked terminally alienating major the south coast’s major water districts at a time when state and federal agencies are casting a keen eye on the distribution of water rights along the Santa Ynez River.