Boiling Point

Goleta Water District Board Race Heats Up

by Martha Sadler

The upcoming election to fill two seats on the Goleta Water
District board has plunged the district into a cauldron of
controversy that brings to mind the raucous water battles of the
1980s. Back then, water politics were the means by which the local
citizenry fought against development in the suburban valley, and
the board’s meetings got pretty rough. Things settled down some in
1991, when the drought-weary people of Goleta finally voted to
import State Water — on the condition that only one percent of it
annually could be used for new development. Then in 2002, when
Goleta incorporated and the development battles moved to City Hall,
the water board receded altogether into dull respectability.

The main issue the board faces today is the struggle of farmers
to survive in the Goleta Valley — the price of agricultural water
being one of the determinants. Currently, the Goleta Water District
charges the lowest rate in the area for ag water — just $1.00 per
100 cubic feet, while residential users pay $3.71. The water
district has the power to put farmers out of business by changing
that rate structure. Adding pressure to the situation is the fact
that the water district’s financial reserves are about $4 million
lower than they should be.

Five candidates are vying for the two available seats on the
board. One of them is Jack Ruskey, a retired attorney and a
cherimoya farmer. Ruskey burst onto the scene by leading a
contingent of other farmers in a successful effort to defeat a
proposed hike in agricultural water rates. Ruskey’s major issue now
is the prohibitive cost to farmers of increasing the amount of
water they use beyond their farms’ historical water use. He is
running in tandem with Bert Bertrando, a retired engineer who
served for 10 years at La Cumbre Mutual Water District, which
serves Hope Ranch. Hope Ranch, where Bertrando lives, does not
actually receive water from the Goleta Water District but
nevertheless votes in its elections due to an historical anomaly.
Bertrando and Ruskey have been relentless gadflies for the past two
years, attending all of the water district’s meetings and
ceaselessly criticizing its policies and practices. In the process,
they have accumulated an enormous wealth of knowledge and come up
with numerous ideas for increasing revenues and containing costs.
One of their most controversial proposals is to do away with the
water conservation program. Instead of promoting low-flow
showerheads, they said, the district should sell more water to its
residential customers.

Laurie Kurilla, a professional geologist, is another GWD board
candidate who lives in Hope Ranch. Kurilla is supported by the
Goleta Chamber of Commerce and Republican party activists, who tend
to support the private property rights of landowners desiring to
cash out of ag by developing their land. However, she professes to
be neutral on land development issues. Kurilla attacked Ruskey and
Bertrando’s stance against the district’s water conservation
program, taking the position that State Water is unreliable and
that conservation is practical as well as environmentally
responsible.

Craig Geyer, a plumbing contractor and Isla Vista landlord, is
running on a platform of inclusivity. He proposed that a permanent
agricultural advisory committee be established, even suggesting
that the committee get a vote on the board — an original and
unprecedented idea of uncertain legality. Geyer said district
definitions need to be clearer in order to determine who gets
charged at what rate: What is true agriculture, for example, and
what mere landscaping? Kurilla and Bertrando should not be elected
because they are not district customers, according to Geyer. “It
would be taxation without representation.”

Jack Cunningham is the candidate who most surely represents the
present board’s easygoing, apolitical posture. The only incumbent
in the running, he has served since 1995. As to agriculture’s
future, he said he doesn’t believe the board has ever forced
anybody out of agriculture — though he believes many landowners are
voluntarily and “wisely” cashing out and making a bundle in an
increasingly urban environment.

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