In some ways, Bob Lieberknecht is the Carpinteria Valley Water District. He took over as the district’s general manager back in 1964 — after a successful career selling pipe — and retired 31 years later. Lieberknecht’s departure from the world of water politics, however, would prove exceedingly short-lived. With the resignation of a boardmember named Richard Van Antwerp, Lieberknecht was almost immediately appointed to fill the vacant seat, which he has occupied ever since.
Today, 16 years later, Antwerp’s daughter, Alexandra Van Antwerp, is part of a slate of three women candidates that’s attempting to consign Lieberknecht and fellow boardmember June Van Wingerden — self-described “water buffalo” — to the dustbin of history. To put them there, the “Water Warrior” slate, backed by a cabal of board critics led by journalist Ann Bardach, seem intent on re-fighting old battles their side lost 22 years ago over the importation of State Water. That’s when 62 percent of Carpinteria approved State Water, thereby obligating the district to pay $3 million a year for entitlements to 2,000 acre-feet of State Water a year, whether it used a drop of it or not. More often than not, the district hasn’t needed any of it, and efforts to sell the high-priced water have been unsuccessful, thus engendering a prolonged state of sticker-shock flashback among the Water Warriors and many of Carpinteria’s water customers, who pay some of the highest rates in the state.
“I still want to know why we’re spending millions of dollars a year for water we will never use,” demanded Van Antwerp, who graduated from Carpinteria High School, went off to college, moved to Seattle for 22 years, raised a family of five kids, started three successful multimillion-dollar businesses, and now wants to know why the district hasn’t tried harder to break its contractual obligation. “Why hasn’t there been a real attempt to open up the kimono?” she demanded. (Solvang tried to break its State Water contract many years ago and lost soundly in court.)
In this, Van Antwerp is joined by Polly Holcombe, who bills herself as a onetime high-rolling fundraiser for the Republican National Committee, and Shirley Johnson, who boasts serious business and trade credentials and who’s immersed herself in the nitty-gritty of Carpinteria’s slow-growth politics since moving here seven years ago. Two years ago, the same Water Warriors backing Van Antwerp, Johnson, and Holcombe supported another slate of slow-growthers to take over the Carpinteria water board, and they snagged two seats, though one of their winning candidates committed suicide after taking office. This effort marks Round II.
In terms of knowledge, experience, and community ties, Lieberknecht and Van Wingerden are both tough and formidable. Van Wingerden actually opposed State Water in the 1990 election, but she wasn’t on the board then. She’s since accepted it as a fait accompli. Lieberknecht was general manager at the time of the election, and he makes no apologies for his pedal-to-the-metal support for State Water. Lake Cachuma had been reduced to a glorified mud puddle, he recounted, and all the projections for future population growth were far more robust than what’s since transpired. “I guess you could call it a panic situation,” he said.
Ever since, Lieberknecht said there’s been a target on his back. “Every time there’s been a rate increase, I get blamed.” Lieberknecht noted that his was hardly the only vote cast in favor of State Water. “If I remember, 62 percent of the voters supported it,” he said. He and Van Wingerden said the district enjoys an enviable water supply, three new wells built, two reservoirs, and capped employee pension costs cut by $10,000 thanks to actions they took. They admit Carpinteria’s water rates are high, but they point out that Montecito’s and Goleta’s are starting to catch up.
As water buffaloes, the two incumbents have never really had to campaign before. In their era, water boardmembers were appointed, served until they retired, and only rarely faced a challenger. Typically, they’d retire before their term did, allowing their fellow boardmembers to appoint their successor. With the advent of the Water Warrior machine and its slate of candidates, that period is clearly over. Or as Lieberknecht put it somewhat obliquely, “June and I are still trying to decide how aggressive we want to be.”