Steamed Over Goleta Water Law

Ordinance Authors Explain Controversial Wording

Jack Ruskey ignores the dinging timer held up by director Lynette Mills to emphasize that he has overstayed his three minutes at the mike. The other directors visible are (from left) Jack Cunningham, Chuck Evans, and
Burt Bertrando.
Paul Wellman

Almost all of the recent furor over water allocations in the Goleta Valley has focused on the question of “carryover.” Specifically, debate has arisen from a single phrase in the landmark 1991 Safe Water Supplies Ordinance. Known as SAFE, the law is meant to safeguard the Goleta Water District’s (GWD) underground water basin, and it cannot be modified except by a vote of the people. “For each year in which [certain conditions] have been met,” it reads, “the District shall be authorized to release one percent of its total potable water supply to new or additional service connections.” Ever since 2001, the district has interpreted “for each year” to mean that if the one percent designated for new development was not used in a given year, it is to be carried over for use in future years. As a result, the district as of this summer had budgeted 1,400 acre-feet of water in the line item for new development, enough for about 5,600 new homes. In July, however, responding to public uproar over new development projects amassing on the horizon, from residents who insisted that “for each year” did not justify any carryover from previous years, the GWD rescinded its entire water distribution plan.

On Tuesday, October 30, the GWD’s directors were scheduled to adopt a new distribution plan for implementing the SAFE ordinance. The new plan, as freshly rewritten by GWD staff, still contained the one percent carryover. After listening to three hours of insults, flattery, and threats of lawsuits from every side, the directors ordered General Manager Kevin Walsh and attorney Chip Wullbrandt back to the drawing board.

More than once during the October 30 meeting, people wondered aloud about the whereabouts of the ordinance’s authors, who so far have kept out of the fray. On Friday, they weighed in. Former GWD directors Katy Crawford and John De Loreto constituted the subcommittee that wrote the SAFE ordinance. Contacted by phone at his law office in downtown Santa Barbara, De Loreto said what he and Crawford meant by “for each year” was “use it or lose it”-that is, no carryover.

“I have no doubt whatsoever,” said De Loreto of his interpretation of the ordinance, “and I should be on the other side of the issue.” At a time when slow-growth activists were trying to limit development to a level that could be supported by the area’s own natural resources, De Loreto was a strong proponent of importing state water and was regarded as a pro-growth partisan. “Our intent was to start the clock over each year,” De Loreto emphasized. “The supply is in flux,” he said. “It’s unreliable. If you make a mistake and overcommit one percent, it’s not really that bad,” he said, “but if you aggregate it for seven years, then you could be in trouble.”

Katy Crawford, a fierce slow-growth water warrior during her years on the GWD board, agreed with John De Loreto on the meaning of
the phrase ‘for each year.’

The annual one percent is a maximum, he noted. “If it looks like you’ve overcommitted, then the following year you don’t have to commit any new water.”

Crawford, a fierce slow-growth water warrior during her years on the GWD board, agreed with De Loreto. The point was to avoid the same kind of “terrible bind” the county had put the GWD in by approving projects that the water district was expected to supply-despite a multiyear drought that resulted in rationing, an endangered aquifer, and state water, the last of which she ultimately consented to put on the ballot along with the SAFE ordinance. The one percent distributions could not accumulate, she said, because “that would defeat the whole purpose. We didn’t want people borrowing nonexistent future water for development.”

Referring to the GWD’s current boardmembers, whose average age is approximately 72, De Loreto added, “They’ll be digging these people out of the grave and putting them on flag poles if they give it all away,” he said.

Of course, the fact that De Loreto and Crawford put aside their differences to come to an agreement in 1991 is unlikely to put an end to the present debate. Nor is the fact that so few developers have laid claim to the available water. Only 7.5 acre-feet have been requested this year, out of the 150 that comprise one percent of the 2007 supply.

The attack on the staff’s proposal was led by Jack Ruskey, a retired litigator who has spent the past two years accusing the district of undermining SAFE in a way that will lead to reckless new development. Ruskey began public comment at the October 30 meeting by alleging that Wullbrandt, recently hired as the district’s legal counsel, had several conflicts of interest. In particular, the carryover would enable the Larwin Company, one of Wullbrandt’s former clients, to pursue its plans for Bishop Ranch, a large, fallow tract of land in Goleta. The Larwin Company wants to build 2,000 new homes there, enough to consume upward of 500 acre-feet of water annually. Wullbrandt later explained that before taking the permanent position with GWD, he resigned as Larwin Company’s attorney and signed a promise that he would represent neither party in dealings between the developer and the district.

Numerous other speakers, including neighborhood activists concerned with traffic and density, also urged the board not to carry over that one percent to the following year if it was not allocated in the current year. The environmental degradation of the Sacramento Delta was mentioned, as was the incalculable effect of global warming on the Sierra ice pack, from which all State Water Project water flows.

A few, however, argued the opposite point, including Jeffrey Nelson, who caused a hush to fall over the room when he identified himself as a “Wright suit attorney.” The landmark 1989 case of Wright v. the Goleta Water District notoriously exempted dozens of large landowners from district rationing during the drought. Nelson warned that “when the bottleneck breaks” on a variety of new development now in process throughout the district, the numerous applicants will have every right to expect water service.

Another point over which the slow-growth activists, the developers, and the staff clashed was the meaning of a new state law, known as Government Code Section 65589.7, which prohibits the district from restricting service to proposed developments unless it can show that it does not have sufficient water supply.

Almost lost in the fiery rhetoric were the compromises the staff built into its recommendations. In particular, the report recommends that no matter how many acre-feet of water have accrued, from all of the previous years’ unused allocations, a maximum of only 300 acre-feet should be actually released in any given year for either brand-new service-to previously unserved properties-and expanded service to properties already served.

At the end of the night, the board voted simply to adopt the minimally controversial resolution that the projected total allocation of potable water for 2008 was 15,472 acre-feet and that one percent of that, to be allocated for new development, was 154 acre-feet. Board President Chuck Evans instructed Walsh and Wullbrandt to come up with a distribution plan that would “answer all of these concerns” voiced during the meeting, with January as a loose deadline.


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