Edgy Frustration Over Drought

Water Rate Increases Coming Next Month

Cachuma Lake at 39 percent capacity (Jan. 9, 2014)
Paul Wellman

A decided tone of “edgy frustration” crept into the Santa Barbara City Council discussion about efforts to respond to the driest and most sudden drought in Santa Barbara’s history, to quote Councilmember Gregg Hart, as councilmembers wondered with evident impatience why more isn’t being done faster. Although City Hall has set aside $3.3 million to buy new water, efforts to secure additional supplies have yet to bear fruit. The most promising proposal ​— ​to buy water from Vandenberg Air Force Base ​— ​is iffy at best and would hardly be enough. By contrast, Central Valley rice farmers are offering 10,000 acre-feet ​— ​a major amount ​— ​and at relatively affordable prices, but as much as 75 percent of that could be lost in carrying charges to offset environmental damages already inflicted on the San Joaquin Delta, through which it must pass.

Likewise, efforts to begin construction on a new reclaimed-water system has been set back twice now by bid protests filed by prospective contractors. Making matters worse, the Coastal Commission has just expressed serious questions about the validity of City Hall’s permits for the mothballed desalination plant. The desal plant has long been regarded as City Hall’s ace in the hole if the drought persists. But with $20 million in restart costs, the sticker shock has proved prohibitive. As other supplies have dwindled, Councilmembers Bendy White and Gregg Hart have grown increasingly impatient that City Hall be ready to go with the desal plant, just in case.

A Coastal Commission planner took exception with the desal plant’s “old-school” water-intake valve located on the ocean floor. The commission has required more recent desal proposals to “drill” water from beneath the ocean floor ​— ​in deference to the health of aquatic biota. In the meantime, the council conceptually approved plans to dramatically increase ​— ​by 103 percent ​— ​how much it charges residents who use the most water, scaling back the rate hikes such that that “lifeline” consumers ​— ​who use the least ​— ​will experience only a bump of 40 cents a month. The hope is to give customers a financial incentive to cut back consumption by 20 percent.

They’ve already achieved a 15 percent reduction since the drought was declared two months ago. City Hall is paying residents to replace their backyard vegetation with drought-tolerant varieties. In the last three months, City Hall conservation specialists have visited 221 households to provide water efficiency assistance. The new water rates, which will be formally introduced later this month, will go into effect July 1. For the hypothetical “average” household, monthly water bills will increase by $10.64. That will help offset the $8 million revenue shortfall City Hall experiences because of reduced water sales and drought-imposed costs.


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