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Man Bites Dog

Sanity Strikes: Private Well in Montecito Struck Down by Coastal Commission


LET’S TALK: Some slights are a matter of choice. You can take them personally if you want. Or not. With others, choice is not an option. Given the unrequited silent treatment I am now enduring at the hands of the Montecito Water District, both responses are clearly mandated.

Angry Poodle

Whenever I run into Nick Turner, the water district’s new general manager, he’s congeniality personified. “Call me,” he says. When I do, all I get is nothing, the connubial combination of radio silence and crickets. If the Montecito district were as tightfisted with water as it is with basic info, it would not have to be preparing customers for significant service reductions. But with Montecito customers guzzling water at twice the rate of everyone else ​— ​and that’s better by more than 100 percent than it was just a few years ago ​— ​little wonder no one wants to talk.

Hey, man, I’m just doing my job. I call up. I ask questions. On occasion, I actually listen to the answers.

So, yes, my nose is out of joint. And I admit that colors my reaction to last week’s battle at the Coastal Commission over a private well permit sought ​— ​and obtained ​— ​by Channel Drive resident, mega-developer, philanthropist, big-league political mover and shaker, all-around nice guy, and UC Regent Hadi Makarechian so he could water his lawn and irrigate his nonnative plants during the worst drought in recent history. Although sanity would ultimately prevail ​— ​and Makarechian’s well permit would be unanimously denied ​— ​a whole lot of people, private citizens and government bureaucrats alike, were forced to work much harder than they should have to make the obvious happen.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that none of this effort would have been required had the people running the Montecito Water District availed themselves of power they clearly have to enact rules that would have prevented the desperate run on Montecito’s groundwater “banks” ​— ​by a whole lot of people just like Makarechian ​— ​that’s been accelerating over the past five years. Because the district diddled when it should have fiddled, Montecito’s groundwater basins are now in serious overdraft. Don’t take my word for it; that’s the professional sky-is-falling opinion rendered by UCSB hydrogeology professor and Indiana Jones/Buckaroo Banzai character Dr. Hugo Loaiciga, who was hired by the Coastal Commission to study the matter. Likewise, Loaiciga expressed serious concern that the large number of private wells sucking water from under Montecito’s ground have created a serious risk of seawater intrusion in Montecito’s most productive groundwater basin. Once that happens, you can kiss your aquifer good-bye. And that’s forever.

Back in 2014, California’s drought had grown so Saharan that the Montecito district felt compelled to enact a rationing ordinance, albeit one that still allowed consumption levels unheard of in other districts. For those exceeding designated allotments, there would be fines. This created a full-employment act for professional well drillers. In 2014, there would be 278 well permit applications submitted by Montecito property owners with the county’s Environmental Health Services. Since the drought started, there have been 490. That brings the total number of private well permits issued in Montecito since the 1970s to 1,000. Not all get built. Still, that’s a lot of straws sucking from a pretty shallow saucer. By the way, these are no-questions-asked applications. To ask is to receive. Only those sought in the coastal zone are subject to any regulatory oversight. Because Makarechian’s property is 400 feet from the beach, he qualified. County planners rejected his application, dismissing it as a flagrant effort to circumvent Montecito’s water-use restrictions. He appealed to the Montecito Planning Commission, which, in its ineffable wisdom, voted 4-to-1 to approve the well. In response, two coastal commissioners personally intervened to challenge the permit.

Late in 2014, the Montecito district asked the county supervisors to enact a ban on new water wells in Montecito. How could they manage the basin with all these private wells? Private wells, district officials estimated, were sucking 700-1,000 acre-feet a year of water out of the ground. Wells owned by the water district itself were sucking another 500. But in an average hypothetical good year, Montecito’s groundwater basins could safely produce only 409 acre-feet. That’s called overdraft. At Montecito’s request, 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal brought the matter before the county supes. It was embarrassing in the extreme. Carbajal couldn’t get a single supervisor to support a single change in how water-well permits are doled out. Making matters even worse, not one person from the water district ​— ​staff or boardmember ​— ​bothered to show up to the meeting they asked for.

At last week’s Coastal Commission meeting, acting director John Ainsworth excoriated the County of Santa Barbara, terming its lack of action on Montecito’s wells “absolutely irresponsible.” His outrage would be more compelling had Montecito ever lifted as much as a finger in defense of its own groundwater basins. Other water districts routinely require property owners to surrender any claim to drilling private wells on their land in exchange for a new water hookup. It’s not perfect, but this policy has effectively limited the number of well permits sought and the number of wells actually drilled. This is not remotely an issue in the City of Santa Barbara, for example, for just this reason. And until 1997, Montecito had the exact same policy in place. Only when the South Coast hooked up to the State Water system after the last drought did Montecito drop it. Anytime since then, the water board could have voted to reenact this policy. It still can. For reasons beyond my ken, it has never seen fit to do so. It has never seen fit to even try. Or so I’ve heard.

If that’s not true, I’d like to know. I’d call and ask if I thought it might do any good. Maybe Nick Turner can pick up the phone and call me. I’ll be waiting.

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