DISTEMPER FI: If desperate times call for desperate maladies, I find myself especially grateful for all the noisy conspiracy talk now emanating from — and about — the Carpinteria Water Board. This racket offers palliative distraction from developments now unfolding in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, about which I know next to nothing and believe even less. Mostly, I pretend everything’s okay. This works for me, but maybe not for the 1,800 Americans killed in Afghanistan. Or the $428 billion we spent there that could have been wasted far more productively propping up our own government. President Barack Obama just celebrated the first anniversary of Osama Bin Laden’s execution — and the ninth anniversary of George W. Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished!” ejaculation — by announcing we’ll leave Afghanistan in a year. The only thing left to do, he explained, is wipe out al-Qaeda. I thought we already had. Last I heard, al-Qaeda’s polling numbers on the so-called “Arab Street” tanked back in 2005 after Bin Laden’s subordinates started killing fellow Muslims instead of Americans. (They, it turns out, were much closer.) Since then, al-Qaeda’s middle management has been entirely wiped out and dues-paying membership reduced to less than 100. Bin Laden, we now know, was sufficiently freaked that he was giving serious thought to changing al-Qaeda’s name. Maybe George W. was right all along. Maybe the “Mission” actually was “Accomplished.”
I can — and regularly do — give the Devil his due, but with George Bush, my mind reels, my body rebels, and I retreat into the confusing comfort of the Carpinteria water wars, now escalating to a fine fevered pitch. Two years ago, the water board was the focus of a mass popular revolt. Infuriated over sky-high water rates heedlessly inflicted by the retrograde Water Buffaloes who’d run the district since wooly mammoths drag-raced down Linden Avenue, this insurrectionist mob of would-be water warriors ran three candidates in a bid to take over the board. Equally unheard of, they successfully knocked off two of the crustiest, most entrenched, in-your-face incumbents, James Drain and Fred Lemere, who came in last and next-to-last, respectively (Drain did himself no favors supporting Venoco’s massively unpopular oil initiative that would have allowed slant drilling in the shadow of Carpinteria’s baby-seal haul-out, arguing, “I hate buying oil from the Arabs who despise us and want to kill us.”) The upstarts soon discovered it’s one thing to win an election, quite another to serve. Water rebel Lynne Ducharme quickly resigned after losing her job and had to leave town; she was replaced by fellow traveler Clay Brown. But Brown, it became clear, was beset by personal demons. On February 8, he quit suddenly with no explanation. Two weeks later, he killed himself. The old-school Water Buffaloes, led by greenhouse grower June Van Wingerden, seized the day with sufficient force to inflict shaken-baby syndrome on every infant south of Summerland. They waited until boardmember Matt Roberts — considered a squishy-squashy swing vote — was away on vacation and voted two-to-one to bring Fred Lemere out of mothballs and install him back on the power seat from which he effectively ran the show, as undisputed über-alpha-male, since 1993. As a power grab, it was bold and brazen. It turns out it was also against the law. When the pitchfork mob predictably came unglued, they crashed last week’s water board meeting armed with legal advice, provided — free of charge — by some unnamed attorney looking to plant a shiv in Lemere’s back. Motives aside, the advice proved solid. The board could not legally replace Brown by a 2-to-1 vote; any board action, it turns out, requires at least three votes. That’s a seriously sloppy rookie mistake for a bunch of old pros to make. Compounding matters, there isn’t enough time — under state election law — to appoint anyone else. So the board will have to hobble along with four members between now and November.
Given that water rates need to be “adjusted” — a polite way to say go up — between now and then, things could get dicey. Carpinteria may not have the absolute highest water rates in the state, as the insurrectionists like to claim, but they’re certainly in the running, due in large measure to the district’s premeditated decision — made 22 years ago in the wake of a drought — to import far more State Water from California’s northern rivers than Carpinteria could ever need, use, or afford. Of the $11 million the district spends every year, $3 million is to pay for State Water that it hardly touches. Carpinteria’s old-school Water Buffaloes — stampeded to perfection by water-rights attorney and Machiavellian genius Stan Hatch — signed up for 2,000 acre-feet of water. At most, the district uses 300 a year. That’s like paying 30 percent of your income to buy a car that you drive only up and down the length of your driveway. It should be noted that back in the day, some boardmembers objected; they argued Carpinteria should commit to buying no more than 900 acre-feet. All this would be so much spilled milk, sour grapes, and ancient history were it not for political repercussions caused by Carpinteria’s incessant sticker shock. Maybe no one would care if the new corporate owners of the 25,000-acre Bixby Ranch — up by Jalama — weren’t looking to “help” Carpinteria out of its fiscal pickle by purchasing rights to half its State Water entitlement. Not coincidentally, Bixby is represented by Stan Hatch’s old partner, Steve Amerikaner. And what makes Amerikaner so impressive is his ability to maintain a straight face as he insists that the new owners — the nation’s 11th-biggest hedge fund — just want to keep the land in agriculture. To do that, he said, they need a 1,000-acre-foot insurance policy. If I got paid to say such things, maybe my eyes would twinkle as brightly as Steve’s. That way, we could both delight in the conspiratorial noises coming out of Carpinteria.