A rising tide may lift all boats, but the current drought — one of the worst in state history — clearly has hit the multitude of county water districts with dramatically different impacts. Earlier this year, it appeared the Montecito Water District might literally find itself out of water come July, but thanks to tough new rationing rules and stiff fines for violators, Montecito residents have cut back consumption by 40 percent. That, coupled with a handful of deals — bringing in new supplies from outside county lines — will enable Montecito — where brown lawns are becoming a badge of civic pride — to limp into the next year with enough water to meet basic should it not rain.
The new doom-n-gloom poster child is the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District, which now appears poised to pull the plug on its long-term agricultural customers, more in response to issues about water quality rather than water quantity. This emerged during a high-octane gab fest hosted by the county supervisors and attended by a who’s who of the county’s water establishment. Although the Santa Ynez district boasts abundant and robust groundwater aquifers, its water also has ambient levels of hexavalent chromium-6 — the contaminant made famous in the Erin Brockovich movie — that violate new water quality standards that go into effect July 1. As a result, the Santa Ynez district — serving 6,700 customers — will be forced to shut down about half its wells.
District manager Chris Dahlstrom complained that efforts to delay implementation of the new regulations — which he estimated will cost the small district $25 million — fell on deaf ears in Sacramento, where representatives Das Williams and Hannah-Beth Jackson, he charged, were of little help. Jackson’s response was that she was contacted before the regulations had been enacted and that the district has at least 18 months before it could be deemed out of compliance. That, she said, was sufficient time to assess the proper legislative response.
Das Williams responded that he’d had two communications with Dahlstrom and the district’s lobbyist and that he’d been asked to support a legislative fix inserted into the budget by an organization representing statewide water agencies. The assemblymember said he was open to the idea that the chromium-6 was naturally occurring because certain rocks in the area produce it. He said he was mindful that the district was facing a major financial crunch, but he did not outright commit to supporting the bill. Regardless, Williams said that bill fell out of the budget, and no one from the district ever notified him of that fact. Williams and Dahlstrom have a bumpy political history from their days serving on boards representing South Coast water agencies when Williams was on the Santa Barbara City Council. But he bristled at the accusation his office had been unresponsive. “I am convincible this is a naturally occurring problem,” he said. “But blaming us for his lack of follow through is not a good way to get legislative help.”