ALL TALK NO RAIN: If every word uttered at this Tuesday’s dueling gabfests about the ongoing drought was a drop of water, we’d all have been washed away by now in a great torrential flood. Sadly, no such miracles occurred. As if to mock the participants — riffing urgently on the twin themes of hope and despair — a thick-’n’-wispy cotton-candy cloud formation, ripe with water, parked itself directly overhead and proceeded to do nothing. Conspicuously missing from the proceedings — which started at the County Board of Supervisors, then shifted to the Santa Barbara City Council, and finally finished up at the Goleta Water District Board — was the obligatory two cents’ worth delivered from the Kooky-Whacky Department. We did not hear, for example, how one entrepreneur has proposed hauling fresh water down the coast from Humboldt County — via tugboat — in gargantuan plastic bags, each carrying 11 acre-feet of water. Given that South Coast water agencies are now buying “excess water” from water purveyors in the Mohave Desert, maybe the Kooky-Whacky crowd felt they couldn’t compete. Maybe they were similarly discouraged by Governor Jerry Brown’s plans to build gargantuan twin tunnels underneath the San Joaquin Delta to more “reliably” carry Northern California’s water — already oversubscribed at a rate of five-to-one — to the Southland’s spigots at the cost of $24 billion. After all, it doesn’t get much crazier than buying water from a desert or believing the miraculous twin tunnels won’t cost at least five times more than Brown is saying.
Nor did any of the jawboners mention how a Ventura County painting contractor is setting up shop in Santa Barbara, offering to paint our brown lawns green for a mere $175 a pop. That’s right, Renée Hall has started a new company called Evergreen Lawn Painting for those seeking a psychological quick fix to the grief induced by brown lawns. Hall explained the “paint” in question is really a vegetable-based dye that’s biodegradable, nontoxic, animal friendly, and lasts two-three months per application. Not everyone, she explained, has $5,000 to shell out to convert their lawns to drought-tolerant landscaping, even with the help of City Hall’s Thousand-Bucks-a-Pop Kill-Your-Lawn subsidy. The dye, Hall explained, was originally developed to address the crippling problem of lawns stained yellow by pets with hyperactive urinary impulses. After trying it out on 10 willing guinea pigs in Ventura, Hall is now ready to take her show on the road to Santa Barbara’s greener — browner — pastures.
Hall’s venture raises all the confounding contradictions that inevitably pop up during droughts. For example, if Montecitans availed themselves to Hall’s service instead of buying water trucked in from Carpinteria — where it is pumped from private wells — then maybe we wouldn’t have to fret so much about Carpinteria’s underground aquifers getting sucked dry. The Goleta Water District Board, it should be noted, adopted plans Tuesday night to get into the water trucking business. Goleta will be offering non-potable, recycled wastewater to customers outside its own district — having the capacity to produce far more recycled water than its own customers can use — so that Carpinteria’s aquifers are not sacrificed at the altar of Montecito’s garden parties. And that’s a good thing, right?
The answer is, as expected, a resounding “Yes, but …” In the midst of a drought, should we be doing anything that encourages people to hold onto their ecologically absurd ideals of green lawns? They are, after all, The Enemy. Hall herself acknowledged her work has induced “lawn envy” among neighbors of her customers. It may seem a small thing, but for managers of the umpteen area water districts seeking to socially engineer their way out of the drought by getting customers to cut back, it’s anything but. Any mixed message, no matter how trivial, can be seriously problematic. In that vein, Santa Barbara planning commissioners have been pushing for a water moratorium, insisting that no new water meters be given out for new development. To do otherwise would undermine calls for conservation. For people to sacrifice, the commissioners argued, everyone has to sacrifice. But the City Council, not wanting the economic deflation associated with moratoria, balked. They noted the amount of water saved would be relatively miniscule — though 150 acre-feet is 150 acre-feet — and opted instead to ask developers not to install landscaping until the drought abates. But even that’s tricky. By asking people not to plant now, won’t that undermine the city’s drought-tolerant landscape planting rebate program, which over time is projected to save 2,000 acre-feet of water?
Such conundrums, however, are chicken feed compared to Montecito’s. There, customers have cut back water consumption by 45 percent. But those who’ve starved their lawns and killed their trees are understandably miffed when they see the “green verdant lush lawns” of the San Ysidro Ranch, as one El Bosque Road resident put it. Although Montecito has imposed rationing, jacked up rates, and imposes stiff fines, there’s still a two-tier reality. The San Ysidro Ranch is one of four district customers willing to pay more than $10,000 a month in fines because, well, they can afford to. If we’re all supposed to sacrifice, some residents wonder why the water district doesn’t lower the boom and install flow restrictors on scofflaws’ water pipes. Once again, it ain’t that simple. Every month, the district imposes about $450,000 in water fines. Those fines have proved hugely instrumental in the district’s success at conservation. But because the district is selling less water, it’s operating at a monthly deficit of about $600,000. The fines help cut that deficit by 75 percent. But even so, Montecito water rates will soon be going up again to recoup the revenues lost because of conservation. This in turn will discourage sales, further increasing the district’s financial dependence on fines.
Like I say, it’s tricky. But mixed messages, like loose lips, sink ships. And when we’re up a creek without a paddle, that’s something we can ill afford. Only in this context could it be construed as good news that there’s no water in the creek.