Goleta Water District Candidates Talk Future of H2O

Three of the four candidates looking to occupy two spots at the Goleta Water District have now made their stances on key issues known, but the two challengers continue to be more outspoken than the incumbents. With less than a month to go until Election Day, longtime Boardmember Jack Cunningham debated challengers Meg West and Charles McClure this week at the Goleta Valley Community Center, but West and McClure did most of the talking.

A seat at this week’s forum for the other incumbent, Bert Bertrando, remained empty; Bertrando, who has held his position since 2006, didn’t attend the first debate two weeks ago, and Cunningham didn’t either. Only about 15 people — the district serves 85,000 customers — attended Wednesday’s event, including Goleta City Councilmember Paula Perotte, former councilmember Margaret Connell, and County Planning Commissioner Cecilia Brown.

Introducing himself, Cunningham addressed the length of this tenure — 19 years — first. “I’m not ashamed of that; I’m rather proud,” he said. Although he added that his wife “thinks I’m nuts” for running again, Cunningham, a 40-year Goleta resident, said he wants to keeping serving. McClure — a landscape architect for 25 years and currently the chair of the Goleta Cemetery District, a position he was appointed to by Supervisor Janet Wolf — said the “lack of a voice” for residents and small-business owners spurred him to run. West, also a landscape architect who sits on the city’s Planning Commission, said that in her eight years living in Goleta she has “really grown roots like my garden.” Continuing, West called water “a regional issue” and pointed to her long list of endorsements from elected officials, including from three county supervisors and multiple members of the Goleta and Santa Barbara city councils.

When posed the first question — what would be the first issue tackled if elected? — each of the three had different answers. McClure said, as a nod to residents frustrated with being asked to cut back on water use at the same time new development gets approved, he would push for a stipulation that all new water meters rely on permanent supplies of water. (A moratorium on new water hookups started this month, but there are some exceptions.) West pointed to the need to “repair damaged relationships” with customers, who have complained about the district’s billing issues. Cunningham said simply that the drought was the district’s biggest challenge, cautioning that “sharp pencils” will be needed to determine allocations.

Looking farther into the future, the candidates shared their thoughts on desalination plants — if the City of Santa Barbara moves forward with one and whether the Goleta Water District should consider one of its own. West prophesized that Santa Barbara residents would see the high infrastructure costs trickled down to them if the plant becomes reality and said Goleta benefits from having 50,000 acre-feet in its aquifer thanks to the SAFE Ordinance, which voters approved to regulate water during droughts. Still, West said, “If we needed the water, I wouldn’t take anything off the table,” which she said included purchasing desalinated water from Santa Barbara or getting rice water from the state.

Cunningham said he’d want the district to look into buying water from the neighboring city, too. McClure agreed that purchasing desal water from Santa Barbara should be left as an option in the future. He also suggested that the district “perhaps become a partner” in the city’s plans or even acquire its own plant if Proposition 1 — the state water bond measure on the November ballot, which he supports — passes and funnels state money to smaller jurisdictions. The district, McClure continued, should also examine desilting reservoirs and removing water vapor from the air but that “reworking landscapes is the 800-pound gorilla.” (On Proposition 1, Cunningham didn’t say much but questioned the cost. West called the proposal’s inclusion of dams and money for environmental causes “a mixed bag.”)

“Toilet-to-tap” programs aren’t the most palatable-sounding proposals, McClure and West said, but should be further explored. West, lamenting the amount of reclaimed water from the Goleta Sanitary District that gets sent out to the ocean instead of being used, said recycled water should be made more attractive to the agriculture industry, which alleges that it’s too salty to use as is. McClure, noting common concerns about dissolved pharmaceutical drugs being in drinking water, said the water would have to be thoroughly cleaned and mixed with aquifer water to make it potable.

When asked to address one of the more hot-button water issues in the Goleta Valley — new development — all three of the candidates acknowledged the murkiness of the situation. “That is a very difficult question,” Cunningham said, before not saying much else. West called it “extremely shortsighted” to not take note of the growth from UCSB and in Goleta when making water decisions. “It’s common sense that water is a finite resource,” she said, adding that the only component of the SAFE Ordinance she takes issue with is the provision of one percent growth in non-drought years. While McClure said he understood it might upset developers, he added that saying “no” might have to be more common. “If we don’t have the water, we don’t have the water,” he said. “If we just let everybody climb into the lifeboat … that really doesn’t do anyone any good.”