Voices were raised and community frustration and divisiveness was evident, but the Montecito Water Board seemed confident it was protecting the interests of conservation as it again presented its proposed change to a tiered rate structure at a community meeting on Tuesday afternoon. The room was hot and packed full of people, but Montecito Water District General Manager Tom Mosby coolly explained to customers that due to statewide water shortages and increased demand over the past several years, conservation is now the district’s number one priority. “If it doesn’t rain this year-state water reservoirs are at a 30 year low-there’s a good chance that we won’t have enough water.”
Just last month, the District-which has by far the highest rates of water consumption on the South Coast-faced a water shortage. At a cost of $816,000, Moseby secured an allotment of 1,450 acre feet from the state water project last month, which he said will last two months at current levels of consumption. His numbers indicated that the current demand stands at 7,256 acre feet (AF) per year, which is above the 6,501 AF of “owned, purchased, and imported” water resources. As of now, in addition to the 1,450 AF procured from the State Water Project, the local supply is 2,400 AF, and 2,651 AF of water is available from Lake Cachuma.
Mosby stated that single family residences constitute 76 percent of the water consumption in Montecito and just five percent of those customers use 30 percent of the district’s water supply. A list-without names-of the community’s top 200 single family residential users shows that the largest of these consumers uses approximately 33 AF of water per year. “They’ve never had a block two [in the rate structure], so there’s never been an incentive to conserve,” he said. Mosby also noted that the tiered rate was effective in reducing consumption in the district during the water shortages of the late 80s and early 90s, and has continued to keep the City of Santa Barbara’s water use static despite some growth, as it has continued to use that type of schedule.
The proposed rate structure change includes an increase of the base price of water from $3.75-the current flat rate-to $3.90-an increase of four percent. “We all have to share the cost of water, and $3.90 [per hundred cubic feet] is what it costs. We can’t charge any less than that,” said Mosby, adding that if everyone cuts their monthly water consumption by just a little bit, they’ll actually save money. He also pointed out that the cost of living amongst Montecito Water District customers has risen by about 37 percent over the past ten years. The only customers who get a break in the base rate under the new system are agricultural users-they will be increased from $1.68 per unit to $1.76 per unit.
After Mosby and the District’s general counsel, Chip Wullbrandt, had finished their presentation of the revised rate schedule, members of the public had an opportunity to weigh in. While some people were generally supportive of the District’s efforts to encourage conservation, many people were upset about the base rate increase, or had issues with the classifications given to different types of customers. Some customers felt that the differences in usage rates between single family residences, multi family residences, and recreation or institutional uses were inequitable, and that the billionaires that they feel are the most superfluous users will not be at all affected by the rate increases. “We have the billionaire phenomenon,” said Susan Keller, a district customer. “That means there are people who will continue to pay for water no matter how much you charge.” Mosby assured them that if the noted abusers of the community’s water supply continued in that vein, their meters will be restricted. “The so called billionaires won’t just get all the water they want,” he said.
What caused near outrage though was the sentiment, voiced by several people in the audience, that the District is paving the way for Rick Caruso’s proposed development at the now defunct Miramar Hotel site. Amidst shouts that the board wasn’t listening to its customers, Board President Dick Shaikewitz waded through people’s commentary. Many called for an SEIR for Miramar, which Wullbrandt said was the responsibility of the County. “We are just a water district serving another customer,” said Mosby of Miramar in a later interview. Miramar, which before it closed down in 2000 reported an annual usage of about 41 AF per year, was recently granted an allotment by the District of 45 AF per year. “They are in what we feel is reasonable use. It looks large, but buildings don’t use water-people do. Our only concern is water use. The SEIR is the County’s discretionary decision.”