GO FIGURE: Sometimes, seeing is believing. Most of the time, it works the other way around. But after witnessing the Montecito Water Board in action Tuesday evening — at a standing-room-only extravaganza — I’m still not sure I can believe my eyes and ears. Ultimately, medical tests will be required to determine whether the board’s action inflicted soft-tissue trauma to my neck. But in the meantime, I’m submitting all medical bills to the district.
I showed up fully expecting an unruly mob of angry citizens armed with pitchforks and rakes. On the table was yet another water rate increase, an insulting if necessary “reward” for the great job normally profligate Montecitans have done conserving water. So incensed was the Montecito Association that it dispatched an email blast urging members to protest the rate hike. The water board was sending dangerously mixed messages, they complained. Conspicuously lacking was any long-term planning or coherent message. In other words, the district couldn’t find its ass with either hand. That same jeremiad was prominently posted in the pages of the Montecito Journal.
Under the rules of the rate-hike game, if a majority of rate payers oppose the increase, it’s dead in the nonexistent water. Prior to the meeting, there had been a few theatrical whiffs and sniffs about a possible recall of water boardmembers. There was some allusion to that at the meeting, but mostly it was 200 exceedingly well-behaved people crammed into exceedingly uncomfortable seats at the Montecito Union School’s auditorium, gazing upon a blizzard of charts and graphs displayed on a 94-inch TV monitor. One speaker — the putative ringleader of the opposition movement — suggested perhaps unkindly that any person in the room was smart enough to do the job of the five elected boardmembers. And although the word “recall” did escape his lips, it was more as a hypothetical possibility than actual threat. It was never clear what exactly his beef was.
I’ll tell you what mine is.
At a time when Southern California finds itself consumed by the most withering drought in modern recorded history, the Montecito Water Board — which has the most precarious water supply of any district on the South Coast — is now pushing its customers to use more water not less. District managers are hoping to bump sales by no less than 26 percent.
To quote Alfred E. Neuman, the world’s most famous nitwit philosopher, “What, me worry?”
Based on the dire prognostications outlined in vivid detail by General Manager Tom Mosby, this makes zero sense. As of October, Mosby said, Montecito will be getting zero water from Lake Cachuma. As of next year, he predicted, Montecito will be getting zero water from the State Water Project. In the meantime, Montecito’s own reservoirs have been reduced to mere gobs of spit. Efforts to stop new wells from tapping further into Montecito’s severely depleted groundwater basin were unceremoniously rebuked by the county supervisors last week.
So why increase consumption?
The district and Mosby successfully went out and bought 2,500 acre-feet on the spot market from water districts in Kern County. That’s allegedly enough, Mosby explained, to get Montecito through the hump of the next two years. At that point, he explained, Montecito will be sucking at the teat of a new desalination plant. In the meantime, all the water conserved — in other words not sold — created a $5 million budget shortfall. For a district with an operating budget of $15 million, that’s huge. The district, Mosby explained, needed to recoup revenues. And some of the landscaping for which Montecito is so famous needed relief.
It should be stated that Mosby seriously saved Montecito’s bacon by securing additional water supplies, if at enormous cost. Props are due. And as absurd as the rate increase may seem, Mosby had no choice but to make up for the revenues lost due to conservation. Without new revenues, the district could pursue no new supplies, no nothing.
Here’s where he lost me. In any parallel universe, Montecito’s desal plant doesn’t qualify as even a pipe dream. There’s simply no way Montecito could have a new plant designed, permitted, and built within the two years projected. It is remotely possible, however, Montecito might draw from Santa Barbara’s reactivated plant — scheduled to begin production in 2017. But if so, Santa Barbara has emphatically refused to raise this possibility with any of the state regulatory agencies that have recently held their noses to approve its plant.
A couple of speakers raised the obvious point; we live in a coastal desert. At some point, we need to address the profound collective denial that’s given rise to Santa Barbara as lush tropical paradise. Our collective delusions of “ambience” — a k a “real estate values” as one speaker tartly observed — need to take a backseat to meteorological and climate realities. To push water sales now, another suggested, was like buying a Hummer because gas prices dipped.
The single best question came just as the meeting was all but over. A man with a sunburned face and a big lantern jaw wondered why the district didn’t just park the additional water it bought. Why not store it some place — rather than sell it — for when there’s not a rainy day? One boardmember said something about “mature” landscaping needing relief. Another boardmember, Dick Shaikewitz — a shrewd ass-kicking retired attorney from Chicago — hemmed and hawed about how the board wrestled with that one. It was hard to follow, but in the end, Shaikewitz explained, “It was one of those decisions that’s neither right nor wrong.”
I probably missed something important. When I heard “neither right nor wrong,” my neck seized up, my eyes rolled back, and a deafening white noise filled my ears. For the record, only 387 voted against the rate hike; 2,196 were needed to block it. For every 748 gallons, Montecitans will now pay $1.87 more. That should cover my medical bills. I don’t know if I got whiplash or not. I think I did. Let’s just say it’s one of those diagnoses that’s “neither right nor wrong.” No doubt the check’s already in the mail