GODZILLA VERSUS THE BLOB: It won’t be coming to a neighborhood theater anytime soon, but the real summer blockbuster is clearly Godzilla Versus the Blob. Except it’s not a movie. It’s real. The Blob, you may remember, is that high-pressure weather system squatting on top of the Pacific mountain ranges, systematically repelling all incoming storm cells. Hence the drought. Godzilla, I am told, is now the official name given to the much hyperventilated El Niño that has meteorologists almost unanimously convinced we’re about to get hit with the same level of rain that once floated Noah’s Ark. It’s why we’ve been getting Florida’s weather the last couple of weeks.
I don’t know the point spread, but I’m betting heavy on Godzilla. If nothing else, it will render irrelevant the petulant and parochial dysfunctionality that’s come to dominate the governmental body most responsible for managing Lake Cachuma, normally the source for one-half of the South Coast’s water supply. I am referring to the Cachuma Operation and Maintenance Board — otherwise known as COMB — an agency so obscure even high school civics teachers know not its name. COMB is made up of representatives from the Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Montecito, and Santa Ynez water agencies, whose members used to operate on the understanding that once the water level at the dam dipped below a certain level, everyone cut back accordingly. We hit that level two years ago, but those now running the show saw fit not to cut back until many months later. As a result, we now have about half a year’s supply left at the bottom of Lake Cachuma. What little is there is evaporating away at a rate of 1,000 acre-feet a month. Had we applied the brakes sooner, there’s no question we’d be in a better spot today. As a public service announcement, I should warn those inclined to freak out easily, avoid Lake Cachuma in the weeks to come. That’s because the dam will be releasing 8,000 acre-feet to meet longstanding legal obligations to downstream property owners. That’s certifiably a whole lot of water, and the dam’s elevation will not merely appear to plunge precipitously; it actually will. As one water boss noted, “It could stir people up.”
For those with an appetite for politically obscure psychodrama, the COMB board meeting was the place to be this Monday. That’s when Santa Barbara City Councilmember Dale Francisco — and longtime COMB boardmember — launched his dramatic, 11th-hour-and-59th-minute power grab with support from the Goleta Water District’s Lauren Hanson. It’s also when the two of them were totally rebuffed by representatives of the Carpinteria, Montecito, and Santa Ynez districts, patronizingly referred to as “The Smalls.”
For the past eight years, Dale has played the role of prickly dyspeptic conservative on the City Council to absolute perfection, tolerating with strained bemusement the many well-meaning but misguided mental midgets who clutter Santa Barbara’s political conversation with feelings they forever confuse as ideas. The fact is every town needs a Dale Francisco, even a place of such mauve and melba sensibilities as Santa Barbara. If nothing else, Francisco should be praised for never using that desperately insinuating phrase “folks,” so beloved of electeds seeking to rhetorically ingratiate themselves with the so-called common people. Francisco is probably every bit as smart as he thinks he is, which is very. He routinely makes me see things I think I know through the prism of confoundingly different vantage points. And during this week’s debate about the new railroad spur oil company Phillips 66 wants to build up in San Luis Obispo to accommodate an 80-car oil train carrying a volatile, flammable type of oil — a mile-long Molotov cocktail — Francisco was the only councilmember to have visited the Phillips 66 refinery. He also happened to have visited the town outside Quebec where one such Molotov cocktail exploded, killing 47 people. That accident, he said, was caused because the engineer failed to apply the brakes — human error, not corporate malfeasance — while parking the train on top of an incline. “It’s terrible. It’s reality,” he said, the two being inextricably bound in Francisco’s grimly optimistic cosmos of economic inevitability.
Francisco’s council term ends this year, and he needs a gig. So he made a grab to become the next general manager of COMB, given that Randall Ward is now stepping down after two years at the helm. That an unrepentant right-winger like Francisco could enlist Goleta’s Lauren Hanson — perhaps the pinkest elected official in Santa Barbara — was a neat hat trick. But not neat enough. To boardmembers representing “The Smalls,” Francisco’s bid seemed at best weird and at worst creepy. For an agency deeply driven by an intense South Coast-versus-Santa Ynez paranoia, Francisco’s ascension to the six-figure throne would only enflame nerves well beyond raw. Given that the COMB board will soon be forced to parcel out the lake’s nearly nonexistent reserves among feuding factions, a genuinely calming presence is required. Likewise, push will soon come to shove between humans and endangered fish for Lake Cachuma’s limited supplies. Someone with serious diplomatic chops is needed to navigate the agendas of the multiple federal agencies calling the shots and new legal realities favoring the fish. Dale is neither of those. What’s also needed is a mix between a camp counselor, cheerleader, head shrinker, and engineer who can get the member water agencies working together. Dale is many things, but I have yet to hear him hum — let alone sing — “Kumbaya.”
Ultimately the COMB board appointed Janet Gingras, longtime administrative manager, as interim GM. “She’s loyal, dutiful, experienced, and knowledgeable,” noted one longtime water warrior, “and in way over her head.” If so, we can only hope it’s because of the “Rainapocalypse” created when Godzilla thrashes the Blob.