CARP DIEM: Oil and water, as anyone in their right mind should know, just don’t mix. Well, maybe not everybody. In another time and another place, I used to work for a seriously crooked house painter — whose last name, not coincidentally, meant “devil” in German — who mixed oil-based and water-based paints whenever he deemed it cheaper to do so. The results were always disastrous for his customers. But by the time the problems surfaced — and the incompatible strains of paint came un-congealed — Devil Boss had already taken his money and run. In a less malicious — though more bone-headed — manner, the fundamental incompatibility between oil and water has been tragically lost on four of the five members of the Carpinteria Valley Water Board. As a consequence, they now find themselves in the crosshairs of the intractable slow-growth-small-machine that’s dominated Carpinteria politics for the past 20 years. Up for grabs is control of the most stubbornly entrenched bastion of Good-Old-Boy politics the South Coast has seen in five decades.
Small town water boards are among the least democratic institutions west of the Rockies. In the interest of securing stable water supplies — and avoiding bloodshed — real water board contests are to be avoided at all costs. As a law of nature, water board seats are to change hands feet first. Sitting boardmembers relinquish their thrones only after concluding their end is nigh. This enables their peers to appoint successors, who then get to run with the irresistible wind of incumbency at their backs. The number of genuinely contested elections Carpinteria has seen in 50 years can be counted on one hand. The number of successful challenges can be counted on one pinky finger. But this year, the kid gloves are off. Instead of the customary cakewalk the three incumbents — James Drain, Fred Lemere, and Matt Roberts — might have expected, three bona fide challengers — Clay Brown, Alonzo Orozco, and Lynn Ducharme — have arisen out of potpourri-filled ante-chambers of the Keep-Carpinteria-Cute cabal to take them on.
When was the last time the majority of water board seats was up for grabs? Try never.
On the surface, the insurgents are campaigning against the stratospheric costs of Carpinteria water, for which they hold the board responsible. Carpinteria has some of the most expensive water anywhere in the state, but that’s been the case for years. It doesn’t really explain why there’s an uprising now. People are justifiably upset that the water district stupidly got itself $100 million in debt. Some of that covered the cost of federally mandated water quality improvements designed to keep cancer-causing chemical reactions from transpiring in the municipal water supply. But most of that debt — $67 million — stems from the board’s decision — made way back in 1990 — to sign up for way more State Water — 2,000 acre-feet a year — than Carpinteria could ever use or hope to pay for. Adding insult to injury, Carpinteria has hardly used a drop in the ensuing 20 years. It hasn’t needed to. But with State Water, you pay for your entitlements, whether you use any or not. As a result, the district spends $3 million a year on debt. That’s out of a total budget of $11 million.
If that’s the beef, then why launch an attack shortly after water rates have actually gone down a smidgen for a majority of ratepayers? And why go after Boardmember Matt Roberts, who, aside from being a charmingly accessible dude and Carpinteria’s Parks Czar, actually voted against State Water? In fact, he argued against it at the time. My hunch is the Carp water revolution is an after-the-fact political belch induced by this June’s Measure J vote, in which Carpinterians overwhelmingly — by more than 70 percent — rejected Venoco’s campaign to bypass the traditional environmental review process and attempt to buy voter approval for a major new onshore oil development. That campaign reenergized a grassroots movement that was otherwise running out of steam. Even with a stake firmly hammered in its heart, Venoco finds itself playing the not-so-subliminal boogeyman animating the Carpinteria City Council race. Concern that Venoco might be playing possum is propelling the effort to reinstate 20-year incumbent Brad Stein, one-term Mayor Gregg Carty — who opposed Venoco even though his high-profile father and equally high-profile sister-in-law emphatically supported it — and one-term Councilmember Al Clark, whose animosity toward Venoco has never been in doubt. (Running against them are Janice Sugiyama — open in her support for Measure J — and Steve McWhirter, a welder who works for companies that contract with Venoco.)
Four members of the water board needlessly injected themselves into the Venoco fight by appearing in newspaper ads paid for by Venoco in support of Measure J. Roberts, it should be noted, was conspicuously not among them. As a matter of politics and policy, this was bone-headed in the extreme. Preliminary environmental analysis of Venoco’s proposed development indicated it might pose serious contamination problems for the groundwater on which the water district heavily relies. The question of groundwater safety was left unresolved when Venoco walked away from the environmental review process. In the void, both sides in the Venoco fight have waved letters written by hydrogeologists — who it turns out have no love lost for each other — saying they were right. No one could accuse either opinion, however, of being exhaustive or conclusive. At the very least, water boardmembers should have withheld judgment on Measure J pending further study of what had the potential of being a serious problem. All four insisted they endorsed Measure J only “as individuals,” not as boardmembers. Talk about splitting hairs. When four “individuals” who sit on the board responsible for ensuring the safety of a natural resource even more important than oil appear in a supportive ad, that’s as close to a “board” endorsement as you can get. But even now, they don’t get it. Incumbent James Drain, for example, defended his support of Measure J, stating, “I hate buying oil from the Arabs who despise us and want to kill us all.”
I’m not sure whatever became of my old house-painting boss. The sheriff back then had advised me to administer a dose of what he termed “ditch justice.” That was right before he reminded me our conversation never happened. Somehow, I never got around to it. My guess is someone else did. My other guess is the Carpinteria Water Board is about to receive the political equivalent of the same. They should have known better. Oil and water don’t mix.