All’s Well That Ends Wells in Montecito

Water District Officials Request Emergency Moratorium on New Applications

Citing a rush on new well applications in response to the ongoing drought, Montecito Water District officials have requested the county impose an emergency moratorium on the requests. The mere announcement served to accelerate the demand with seven new applications submitted the day the story surfaced last week. District manager Tom Mosby argued the moratorium is necessary so long as the emergency drought conditions persist. Montecito’s groundwater basins, notoriously small to start with, are exceptionally hard to manage when the county is approving additional wells, he said. (The district does not issue well permits; the county’s Department of Environmental Health Services does.) Last year, there were 13 applications. Not counting the latest seven, there have been 70 this year. How many of these have been drilled remains unclear. There are roughly 600 permitted wells within the Montecito Water District. Three dozen of them have failed in the past two years, Mosby said.

Supervisor Salud Carbajal, who represents Montecito, said he had not seen the request yet, but he wanted to know whether the idea enjoyed broad community support. Planning and Development director Glenn Russell said such measures are typically countywide and that Montecito’s request is novel. The obvious legal fear is a takings claim. The right of property owners to any water below their properties is legally superior to those held by the water district. If a property owner without a district water meter were denied the ability to drill, that might constitute a “taking” in the eyes of the law. It’s not clear, however, how many vacant parcels of land exist within the Montecito service district that fit this description.

Mosby contended it is “illogical” that the water district should be expected to manage its limited water supplies without the power to regulate the number of new wells drilled, and he expressed hope that the supervisors would help address “this disconnect.” Two members of the California Coastal Commission weighed in on the question last week, objecting to three new wells that had been approved at Fernald Point by the Montecito Planning Commission. The Coastal Commissioners argued it made no sense to approve new wells for a groundwater basin suffering from overdraft during a drought emergency, but geologists countered that the water those wells could capture would otherwise flow to the ocean where it would be “wasted.” That matter will be heard by the Coastal Commission in December.

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