Upset over the prospect of water bills that are even higher than the ones they already pay, almost 100 people packed the Carpinteria City Hall Wednesday night for the Carpinteria Valley Water District’s meeting. The streets were lined with numerous parked cars, but not by the battered farm trucks and pedestrian vehicles one might expect from people tired of paying expensive water bills. Rather, the lots and lanes were in large part filled with the Mercedes, BMWs, and expensive SUVs owned by Carpinteria’s more cosmopolitan residents.
“No more new projects we can’t afford and don’t need,” said Ocean Oaks resident Annie Bardach, to applause from the audience. Bardach, one of the community leaders of Carpinteria H2O – a grassroots group fighting for lower water bills – listed a number of ways the district could cut costs, including cutting employee health benefits.
After presenting potential rate increases in the wake of what they said were improvements to meet federally mandated water quality standards, the district’s Board of Directors fielded irate comments from members of the public. Most honed in on the district’s 1991 purchase of an allotment of 2,000 acre-feet from the State Water Project – which has since been determined to be twice what the small district needs – as the primary cause for concern, but others called for the expulsion of general counsel Chip Wullbrandt, a possible merger with the Montecito Water District, and installation of a desalinization plant as other possible fixes to the district’s spiraling budget. Carpinteria resident Tom Mayer called for the board’s immediate resignation, suggesting that a state agency should step in and take control of the district. “Who’s looking out for the rank-and-file rate payer?” said Bruce Taylor, who owns a commercial building on Linden Avenue.
As has been customary at Carp. Water meetings in recent memory, the subject of Rancho Monte Allegre was broached. Many customers voiced their comcerns that the 3-million-gallon tank installed on ranch property – which is slated for development – was intended to provide water service at district expense for a developer who was unable to secure a permit from the state to divert local creeks for water. Board members said the tank was built to meet federal water quality standards while covers were being constructed for the Ortega and Carpinteria collection reservoirs. Director June van Wingerden pointed out in response to suggestions that the district be merged with Montecito that the Montecito Water District collects property taxes as part of its revenue stream, a method of charging the Carpinteria Valley Water District does not use. “It’s hard to compare Montecito and Goleta with Carp. unless you consider property taxes,” said Director Bob Lieberknecht.
Having sat silent for most of the meeting’s controversial rate increase agenda item, Director Matthew Roberts explained that the $3 million annual cost of state water – which he noted was approved by 63 percent of Carpinteria’s electorate in 1991 – plus ever higher standards from the federal government, have made providing water service very expensive. “Many people have turned their faucet on for 50 years and water always comes out, so it’s difficult to fathom that water could cost more,” he said, adding that water rates across the country are soaring due to aging infrastructure, federal water quality regulations, and, in this area, Southern California’s dwindling supply. “We are not making uninformed decisions.”
As the board finished the first agenda item, Director Frederick Lemere invited audience members to stay for the next two agenda items, which explained in detail how a big chunk of the district’s money was being spent. However, save nine people, all of the concerned customers – including the most vehement protesters of water rate increases – departed.
South Coast water agencies share some infrastructure, so Rebecca Bjork, the City of Santa Barbara’s water resources manager, and Kate Reese, general manager of the Cachuma Operations and Maintenance Board (COMB), were on hand to present upcoming capital improvement projects that will affect Carpinteria water customers. Bjork said that significant costs were incurred by 2007’s Zaca Fire, which burned the upper reaches of the Santa Ynez River watershed and deposited tons of silt in Lake Cachuma, the main drinking water supply for the South Coast. The organic carbon from the fire bonds with chlorine molecules, creating potentially carcinogenic chemicals, she said, increasing the annual treatment and solids handling costs at Cachuma by $2.2 million. Future plans include ozone treatment at Cater Treatment Plant to remove organic carbon, as well as to improve the taste and clarity of drinking water. Bjork said that the treatment will also reduce costs a bit. Currently, the City of Santa Barbara pays 60 percent of the plant’s operating costs, while Montecito and Carpinteria split the other 40 percent.
Because her agency is seeking a number of grants to fund improvement projects, Reese said that the much needed updates to Cachuma and the South Coast Conduit – the pipe that supplies South Coast communities with 80 percent of their drinking water – will add significant cost to the districts they serve. COMB is seeking a $16 million bond measure and Proposition 50 money to fund $20 million worth of projects, including a second pipeline to augment the aging South Coast Conduit, and a new office building for COMB staff. “We operate on a shoestring budget,” said Reese, pointing out that her staff works in dilapidated trailers with leaky roofs, and that they are not able to create a reserve fund for projects.